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An Invitation to the Inside of My Head
The full introduction and index to Volume 1 of my private journal
Welcome to The Living Dark. I’m Matt Cardin, and this is my blog/newsletter on waking up at the intersection of creativity, writing, religion, horror, nonduality, apocalypse, dystopia, consciousness, and culture. You can subscribe by clicking this button:
As I announced in last week’s newsletter, the first volume of my private journals has now been published. The execution of this project, which had its genesis in an email conversation with S. T. Joshi this past January, has been accompanied throughout by a swirl of thoughts and emotions that have cycled from dubiousness, to insecurity, to intense energy, to manic focus, to grave reservations, and then back through it all again. I could say more about this up front, but since it actually forms part of the ostensible introduction that I eventually wrote and am now sharing with you here, I’ll direct you to that, below.
On the matter of the book’s index, now that Volume 1 (of 2) is published, I contemplate with a kind of low-grade awe the narcissistic hubris (or hubristic narcissism?) that is evinced in the act of taking time to create a freaking index of one’s own life. Because that’s what this one amounts to. As I state in the introduction, my journal amounts to my interior autobiography, as distinct from a conventional exterior/objective one. It tracks and recounts my inner life from age 22 to 51 — though, as I point out in the introduction, sometimes its contents form a kind of obverse image of what I was actually thinking and feeling outside the pages. And I went and created an index to it. Personally, I find it interesting and valuable to have this schematic record of the topics, themes, books, authors, and ideas that have seized and occupied my attention over the years, along with a rough measure of the relative importance of each to my overall journey as seen in its total number of page references. But to think that such a thing could, or would, or should be of any interest to someone else feels kind of . . . what’s the word? . . . presumptuous. Pretentious. Fatuous. As I’ve typed the past couple of sentences, the word “icky” has wanted to force itself through my fingers, and I have assented, and then deleted, and then retyped it several times. So now I’ll just let it stand, safely ensconced in the buffering layer of rhetoric that I have cleverly created to contain it.
But enough with this introduction to an introduction. Here you go. As for the index, it appears as a downloadable PDF at the end.
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Introduction to Matt Cardin: Journals
Believe it or not, this is my third attempt at writing an introduction for the book you are now reading. Let me describe the first two attempts before explaining why this has been so difficult.
The first version was an absolute nonstarter, though I only discovered this after I had butted my head up against an unyielding wall for several weeks. My plan was to write an organized introductory essay, something that would frame the book’s contents in a helpful way for readers who might benefit from some preliminary context on the private interior conversation these writings represent. As I say, that attempt failed. I found myself blocked at every turn. The difficulty was of course that I was attempting to adopt a semi-scholarly attitude of objectivity toward a set of intensely subjective writings that spilled out of me over a thirty-year period, and to make a supervening comment on it. The task of writing that kind of coolly distant appraisal is for someone else, though I cannot imagine who might ever want to attempt such a thing, or why.
The second version went a little further before I realized that it, too, was a dead end. To get started on it, I adopted a meta approach by commenting on the failure of the first version. I talked about the origin of this project in a conversation with S. T. Joshi, who suggested that readers of my books might be interested in seeing my private journal. I reflected on my great love for Henri-Frédéric Amiel’s Journal Intime, which was brought to my attention in the early aughts by a well-placed recommendation from Olivia Dresher, owner of Impassio Press, who at that time published a few excerpts from my own journal in an anthology of fragmentary writings. I noted in that second intro that I feel a deep kinship with Amiel and have sometimes felt as if my journal represents my real work as a writer, just like Amiel’s did for him. I also noted that I am, at the same time, unnerved by statements like that of Lewis Piaget Shanks, who averred in a 1921 essay on Amiel that “the expedient of a journal was but a compromise with his divided impulses, a compromise between the artist and the philosopher,” representing “the sort of postponement of creative effort one expects from the latter” and resulting in an ultimately frustrated and stifled creative arc, a poignant artistic and existential misfire. Piaget’s assessment was in line with the standard view of Amiel’s life and career, which holds that he never really found his rightful authorial métier, the combination of passion and form that would have resulted in the writing of a genuine literary masterwork. Instead, says this line of thought, Amiel poured his exquisite brilliance and sensitivity into that journal, much of which chronicles a three-decade trajectory of mounting despair as he found himself paralyzed with reflection and unable to focus his powers on producing the kind of work he really wanted to do. He died in this state of creative frustration, feeling that he had squandered his potential and failed himself and his friends.
In that second abortive introduction, I wrote all those things and more, until I realized I had written myself into a corner yet again by unconsciously reproducing pretty much the same error as the first attempt. Nearly five thousand words into it—a ridiculous length—I pulled the plug on that version, too.
So, here we both sit with version three, which is really the end of it. Appropriately chastened, all I will say this time, other than to offer a few housekeeping notes and an autobiographical sketch to provide some context for the journal entries (see further below), is this:
In 24 years as a published writer, I have never felt more vulnerable than I do right now, with this book. To be published at all is to put yourself on the line. Every writer knows this. Publication is, intrinsically, an act of vulnerability. It reveals some aspect of your inner life. It channels your private mind into the minds of others. But usually, you only publish what you wrote for that purpose in the first place. This affects your approach on a fundamental level. You frame everything differently, introducing some irreducible element of art or artifice, when you intend for it to be communicated to someone else.
“Publishing this book is like inviting you inside my head, granting access to my psyche for a phantom presence with the ability to observe my unfiltered, inmost thoughts.”
With the present book, things are different. I wrote its contents for a private audience of one. You were never supposed to see them. Thus, turning them into a manuscript, and then actually publishing the damned thing, is like inviting you inside my house to watch me up close for thirty years—if, that is, you were invisible and I had no idea when you were there or how you were reacting. More accurately, it’s like inviting you inside my head, granting access to my psyche for a phantom presence with the ability to observe my unfiltered, inmost thoughts.
In this third and absolutely final attempt at an introduction, I seem to have written myself into a state of mind that can accurately be articulated by the helpful question, “What the hell am I doing?” Being intimately acquainted with the habits and tendencies of this projected character whom I call “myself,” I know that if I dwell on this too long, I will be seriously tempted to pull the plug on the whole thing. Which is why, for better or worse, the intro you have is the intro you get.
Since it might help my readers to have some kind of external framework to hang these internal reflections on, here is an outline of my outer life by decade.
1970s: I was born in 1970 in Arkansas and then raised in the southwest Missouri Ozarks in the small town of Cassville, just north of the Missouri-Arkansas border. My father was an attorney and my mother a sometime schoolteacher (physical science and public speaking). I had a solidly middle class, middle American upbringing. My mother’s side of the family lived in Cassville, so I grew up with them. We frequently visited my father’s side of the family in rural Arkansas. We were members of the First Christian Church and attended services regularly. I was baptized at age 8, and throughout my youth I took my Christianity quite seriously. Much of my family’s social life was connected to the church. I also started taking piano lessons when I was 8. One of my earliest expressed desires in vein of the “what I want to be when I grow up” was, “I want to be a writer.”
1980s: I was a voracious reader in my youth, especially in the areas of fantasy and science fiction. I also had a distinct taste for scary stories, and this bloomed into a primary liking for horror fiction in early adolescence. I was a straight-A student in school, with a few harrowing fumbles. I wrote a fantasy novel, now lost, when I was 14. Throughout junior high and high school, I continued with piano lessons, the last five or six of which involved intensive classical training. At age 15 I was the featured pianist for two performances with the Ozark Festival Orchestra of Haydn’s Piano Concerto No 11 in D major. I also took martial arts lessons, studying Japanese Goju-ryu under Jeff Speakman and then under his sensei, Lou Angel, for seven years, eventually achieving a first-degree black belt. During my senior year of high school I wrote a vampire story, entered it in a short story contest held by a local writers guild, and won first prize. In 1988 I graduated from high school and began attending the University of Missouri-Columbia, where I majored in communication and minored in philosophy after the film studies program that had been my specific purpose there was discontinued (though I was lucky enough to be among the final cohort of students at Mizzou who got to shoot short films on actual celluloid and then cut and edit them by hand). In late high school and early college I developed a voracious interest in Lovecraft and Alan Watts. At university I read every book in the library on Lovecraft, essentially taking a self-directed second major on his life and work. I had a very serious college girlfriend.
1990s: After graduation in 1992, I moved to Branson, Missouri, got married, and began raising a family. After short stints as a motel night manager and a maintenance crew member at a Branson golf course and condo community, I got a job as a camera operator on the video crew at The Grand Palace, a music theater that hosted shows by A-list country and pop music stars. My journal starts at that point. After leaving the Palace, I spent two years as the video director for Glen Campbell at his music theater. During this same era I began experiencing sleep paralysis attacks with accompanying hypnagogic visions. I also experienced an agonized internal struggle, lasting several years, with feelings of being trapped by my professional and domestic lives. In 1994 I wrote my first mature horror story, “Teeth,” but failed to find a publisher. In 1996 I left Branson to become a media producer for nearby Southwest Missouri State University (renamed Missouri State University in the early 2000s). I also began pursuing a master’s degree in religious studies and certification as a high school English teacher. Throughout the decade I was also a church pianist, first at a Freewill Baptist church and then at a Southern Baptist one. At the latter I also became a Sunday School teacher, a deacon, and a youth activity director. In the middle of the decade, I learned to get around on the Internet and soon became a member of the informal online satsang group gathered around nondual teacher Scott Morrison. I also became deeply involved in Usenet, especially alt.horror.cthulhu, where I posted many philosophical thoughts and interpretive reflections about Lovecraft and supernatural horror fiction. In 1997 I discovered the writings of Thomas Ligotti. I also met Jon Padgett in the Lovecraft newsgroup, and our combined enthusiasm for Ligotti soon led him to create a Ligotti newsgroup and then Thomas Ligotti Online, which still exists today. “Teeth” became my first published story when Jon posted it there. Late in the decade, I left my job at the university to work for several years at a mortgage company. In 1998 or 1999, I began an intermittent email correspondence with Thomas Ligotti, as facilitated by Jon Padgett. In 1999 my parents divorced under difficult circumstances. This plunged me into a psychological tailspin for a time.
2000s: My family and I moved to yet another small southwest Missouri town at the start of the decade. From there, I taught high school English at a rural public school for six years, with a year-long hiatus in the middle when we briefly moved to Texas and then returned to Missouri, after which I spent a year selling grand pianos and digital keyboards before returning to the classroom. I also played the piano and directed the choir at a United Methodist Church. In 2001 I sold “Teeth” to a horror anthology from Del Rey. That same year, I attended my first writing and publishing conference, the World Horror Convention, in Seattle, and it was there that one of the anthology’s editors, John Pelan, introduced me to the proprietors of Ash-Tree Press, which resulted in the publication of my first book, Divinations of the Deep, in 2002. I was awarded my M.A. in religious studies in 2003. Over the next few years I sold more short stories to various publications, and I continued to attend writing and genre conventions. I also worked obsessively to compose and produce an album of instrumental music using the Yamaha keyboard and digital equipment that I had purchased while selling pianos. In 2006 I started a blog titled The Teeming Brain. It would have a lifespan of 16 years. In 2008 my family and I moved back to Texas. This time the move actually “took,” and we ended up staying there for a dozen years. I went to work at a community college in Waco as a writing center instructor and adjunct professor of English and reading. I also served as a part-time pianist at a local Baptist church.
2010s: My second book, Dark Awakenings, was published in 2010. I became a grandfather in 2011. The same year, I self-published A Course in Demonic Creativity: A Writer’s Guide to the Inner Genius. In 2012 we left the Waco area and moved to Stephenville, where I went to work for another community college as an academic advisor and English instructor. I soon began teaching a course in world religions as well. During this time I took on several academic editing jobs, eventually creating three different encyclopedias—on mummies, the paranormal, and the history of horror literature—for a large academic publisher. I also edited Born to Fear: Interviews with Thomas Ligotti. I became the pianist and choir director at a United Methodist church. In 2015 my father died after a swift and brutal battle with cancer. The impact on my basic sense of life, self, and world was pervasive and profound. At my college job, I was promoted to an administrative position. In 2017 I began a Ph.D. in leadership studies, taking Oswald Chambers, the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Scottish preacher and teacher, as the subject of my dissertation. I was awarded my doctorate in 2019. That same year my third horror fiction collection, To Rouse Leviathan, was published. By the time we left Texas in 2020, I was a vice president at my college.
2020s: In late 2020, in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, my wife and I moved to a rural town in North Arkansas. I spent a year working remotely for two universities and providing freelance editing services to graduate students around the United States. Then I was hired as the chief academic officer at a North Arkansas community college. In 2022 my fifth book, What the Daemon Said: Essays on Horror Fiction, Film, and Philosophy, collecting my essays and interviews from the previous two decades, was published.
Be advised that relatively little of the above appears in the pages that follow. This is a journal, not a diary. It is the record of my inner life, not my outer one. If there is an overarching theme, it is the overwhelming intensity of my abiding compulsion to search for a spiritual and philosophical answer to the riddle of my life, as informed and abetted by a profusion of books, authors, philosophers, and sages, many of whom I only partly or sometimes flat-out wrongly understood as I appropriated them for my own unconscious ends, using them as fodder to think the thoughts, feel the feelings, and move philosophically and spiritually in the directions that I was interiorly programmed to move. This means that for entire spans of months and even years, my journal says nothing at all about outward daily matters of family, professional life, personal interactions, and so on. For a long time my attention was focused more on books, ideas, and associated inner swirls of thought and emotion than on daily life, the people around me, and external circumstances, though I mostly functioned well enough in that arena. (My family, however, suffered from my inner retreat and self-absorption, and this is something I profoundly regret.) In essence, this journal is a spontaneous inner autobiography. But the overall external biographical context may—or, depending on your needs, may not—prove helpful.
It also may or may not be helpful to know that sometimes when I wrote in my journal, especially during the 1990s, I was not so much expressing or describing my current inner state as trying to talk myself out of it. This means the content of some entries is pretty much the obverse of what I was actually feeling when I wrote them. Occasionally this ironical relationship is visible on the surface. Usually it is not.
Now for the aforementioned housekeeping notes.
For this published version of my journal, I have recreated the entry headings exactly as I originally wrote them. Most of the time this means I included not only the date (month, day, year) but the day of the week and the time of day when I started writing the entry. In some cases this varied.
At several points in my life, such as the period from 2002 to 2005, for reasons that will never make good sense, I have kept more than one notebook, writing in both a full-sized one and a pocket-sized one that I can carry with me. This means that as I transcribed my journal to produce a manuscript, at times I had to switch back and forth between different notebooks within a single month, week, or even day. For instance, I might find that on a given day I had written an entry in my full-sized notebook at 7:00 in the morning, then a second in my pocket notebook at 11:30, and then a third in the large notebook in the afternoon. Sometimes, though not always, the length of the entries corresponded to the size of the notebook. The pocket version tended to favor pithier thoughts.
As with the entry headings, I have reproduced the variations in spelling, punctuation, and capitalization that are present in the handwritten text. For example, there is an inconsistency across time in the capitalization of “East/Eastern” (or “east/eastern”) and “West/Western” (or “west/western”). Sometimes the first letter of an independent clause after a colon is capitalized, and sometimes not. From 1993 to 1996 I referred to the Tao Teh Ching, but then in later years I called it the Tao Te Ching. I used “awhile” and “a while” without precision. Sometimes I inserted a comma before “because” and other times not. It would have been useless to catalog all these items, so I didn’t, but I thought I would mention them here.
“Sometimes when I wrote in my journal, I was not so much expressing or describing my current inner state as trying to talk myself out of it. This means the content of some entries is pretty much the obverse of what I was actually feeling when I wrote them.”
On the important matter of people’s names, I have replaced most names with a simple first initial in order to protect the privacy of friends, family, and colleagues. In places where I do use full names, I either have explicit permission to do so, or else the people in question are public figures, and what I wrote in my journal does not air any of their private business. I have followed a strict rule of not listing people’s names when sharing the contents of sensitive private conversations, of which there are precious few recorded in my journal anyway. This is all my story to tell, so to speak, and I will not attempt to tell other people’s stories for them.
I have also excised other material for different reasons, primarily because of repetition and privacy. On the first count, many of my journal entries circle around the same philosophical, emotional, and spiritual issues with a genuinely obsessive dedication. The repetition wearied even me as I went back over them, so for the manuscript I cut a lot of this out. When you encounter the obsessively recursive thoughts that still remain in this distillation, you may wonder, “Where and what exactly did he cut?” On the second count, I have left out a handful of entries dealing with sensitive matters that need to remain private for the sake of family and friends (as interlinked with that principle of “tell only my own story”).
In addition to conventional journal entries, these pages contain a number of excerpts from unfinished short stories, as well as one completed draft of a short-short. In my twenties I sometimes wrote first drafts right in my journal, so I have included a few of these here, not the complete drafts but just the first few paragraphs of each to give a sense of how my early attempts at writing fiction interacted with other aspects of my inner life.
I have also included dozens of short descriptions or seed ideas for supernatural horror stories that I recorded along the way and then never acted on. For a time during my twenties and thirties, story ideas occurred to me in batches over spans of weeks and months, and I captured them in my journal. Having presently reached what feels like the end the line as a fiction writer (though who knows, I could be wrong, it’s up to my daemon muse), I will never actually turn any of these into finished stories, so I have no compunction about sharing them with you.
And now, having reached at last something resembling a conclusion to something resembling an introduction, I step aside to let my former, younger selves do the talking.
Click to download the full index to Volume 1: