When I was interviewed recently, I didn’t expect to wind up posting now to justify writing about sex. In ensuing comments on the interview on the Facebook group for Thinking Horror, I was faced with arguments that sexual repression can be a friend to creativity, and that the chief legacy of Sixties sexual openness was an uptick in STD rates and the numbers of hippie-chick single mothers on welfare. Personally, when I’m tackling my own sexual identity in prose, welfare economics are not the first thing to spring to my mind, but apparently it’s a natural connection for some.
Still, normally I wouldn’t bother with addressing such remarks, but the interview itself was hedged round with warnings and qualifications about the graphic nature of my writing. I’m not to any degree singling out John Linwood Grant – a fine writer of sometimes transgressive weird fiction – and greydogtales for a practice that appears pretty much genre-wide. And I’ve been warned off trying for a slot at comic cons, etc. before on similar grounds, as well as seeing one dark/weird fiction publication venue after another carrying a rider on the submissions page stating “no explicit sex scenes” or “no sexual abuse of any kind” or closing the door to “graphic sexual scenes” or welcoming sex only “in moderation” with an implicit or explicit warning against explicit or transgressive material. Ralan lists “Use of vulgar language, explicit sex, excessive violence, etc. when it is clearly stated ‘not wanted’,” as the #3 pet peeve for editors – indicating how prevalent those clear statements are. A matter of taste, fine – but a matter of policy? As the American Civil Liberties Union states, “American law is, on the whole, the most speech-protective in the world – but sexual expression is treated as a second-class citizen.” And take a look here on Horror Tree for Ken MacGregor’s provoking question on the flak he gets when asked “You write erotic horror [I do] and children’s books under the same name?!? What if someone reads your kids’ books and decides to see what else you write?” So I’d like to say some more about the value of transgressive horror and weird fiction, and more broadly, about sexual issues and the acceptance of transgressive writing about sex in the whole dark/weird/fantastic/speculative fiction community.
There are chapter-and-verse arguments available everywhere about the value, aesthetic merits, and social utility of free writing about sex, and what kind of writing should be acceptable, or prohibited. Those are all worthwhile, important, and separate arguments – that we can have elsewhere once we tackle the whole genre-wide issue that even dictates whether there can be a discussion in the first place. This is a plea for a more mature, more adult – in every sense – attitude and climate of opinion across the genre community, because we need that, for those same reasons and some additional ones that I’ll outline below. Perhaps this isn’t such an issue as it appears to me – and of course I’m special pleading to an extent – but I’m just going from the reactions I’ve had so far.
Most of this rant is going to be directed at American genre culture, because this exercises such a powerful influence on the whole imaginative fiction genre cluster worldwide, and because the broader American (pop) cultural landscape exhibits such a marked, bizarrely unbalanced, attitude towards sex versus violence. As I keep getting reminded, by honest well-wishers who respect my work and want to see it more widely read, America will accept wholesale slaughter onscreen, but not a single nipple. A rampant free-fire gun culture with epidemic levels of campus rapes and addiction to slasher porn, never mind gun deaths, can’t handle adult approaches to sex? Old enough to shoot, but not to shoot your wad? Is that contradictory, or causal?
Prudishness over sexual issues certainly isn’t uniquely American, but its mutation into whole wildly successful pop-culture sub-genres of media violence against women might well be. Look what happens in the slasher flicks that North American teens cut their affective teeth on. As Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson put it, if you have sex, you die. If you are sexy, you die. If you disturb or upset the confused, poorly articulated libidos of young malehood, if you dare threaten their fragile, unstable self-esteem by actually eliciting desire, your reward is bloody dismemberment, in as creatively sadistic a fashion as the audience can vicariously get off on. Why is the Final Girl always a Girl? Isn’t that the most transparent sublimation, “where socially unacceptable impulses or idealizations are unconsciously transformed into socially acceptable actions or behavior, possibly resulting in a long-term conversion of the initial impulse.” Only in this case, what society deems acceptable behaviour is the mass slaughter of young girls.
Slasher flicks feed the same appetites that find outlet in communal rapes, honour killings, and group violence against women in other cultures and contexts. Sadistic vengefulness descends on girls who dare transgress communal mores in honour-bound cultures, and gets a free pass off the spirit of righteous retribution. And in such mucho macho societies, of course, a man out to commit honour killings is motivated far less by concern for the women in question, than for the threat to his manhood and social standing for being unable to keep his womenfolk in line. Men’s fear for their own manhood – at the root of so much cruelty. Think of Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” What pathetic disproportion. And for anyone naive or prejudiced enough to think that brutal punishment disguising socially sanctioned sadism is alien to Western cultures, read Brian Jarvis’s recent study Cruel and Unusual: Punishment and U.S. Culture for just one up-to-date analysis of America’s love affair with excessive and twisted punishment regimes, embodying “the secret, silenced histories of sadomasochistic desire.”
Whatever the hypocrisy involved in America’s relative acceptance of violence (and especially, highly sexualized violence) versus actual sex, for horror writers, filmmakers and readers, that should highlight one point. Or rather one letter: X. Horror is… ahem… explicitly rated as adult. Unless you’re working in the slightly oxymoronic and easily demarcated zone of YA horror, this material is by its nature destined for a mature audience. And it is specifically intended to upset, disturb, unsettle, horrify, even disgust. The adult rubric of horror ought to be a free pass to do just that. So why the issue with explicit sex and transgression in horror writing? I shouldn’t need to underline how transparent that double standard is. And I really could wonder about the mentality of those who believe it’s acceptable and fine to frighten and unsettle people, but not to arouse them. That side issue aside, what argument could there be for not using this specific tailor-cut opportunity to probe areas of human feeling and human life that other genres often simply cannot?
I’m very happy with the immaturity of the horror and weird fiction community in one context – the cosplay, comic book fun level, which makes gatherings so entertaining and innocently enjoyable, like Trick-or-Treat for grown-ups, all year round. If the price of keeping that part of the genre community on board is the rigid exclusion of explicit adult content, then perhaps it’s a price worth paying, but I don’t believe this is a straight either/or choice. And I’m certainly not advocating deliberate exposure of a YA audience to truly adult content. (For an interesting, SWFA-hosted, discussion, in passing, with plenty of links about this topic, see here.) But the YA audience, with kids and teens involved, has been pushed at me before as an argument for keeping transgressive and explicit material – like mine – out of comic and genre cons entirely. Adult content is sidelined or excluded – and anti-harrassment policies are mandatory. Are such policies required because of the breathy sexual content of weird fiction and graphic novels? Unlikely. It does suggest, though, that the genre fiction community has a problem with sex that has nothing to do with explicit content.
I’m not the only one to link this to the same toxic adolescent mentality that has disfigured fandom of all kinds, from comics to Star Wars, for so long. I don’t agree with Giles Fraser that the alt/nerd-right is worse than the Evangelical right, but I do agree that he’s right in linking the emergence of the alt-right to the culture wars around Gamergate and the Rabid Puppies – a little brushfire war that has now gone mainstream with the Trump campaign. And the apparently seamless carry-over from Gamergate into the Sad/Rabid Puppies debacle suggests to me that there’s no age barrier or cutoff here – gaming, comics, speculative fiction, all part of the same broader community with the same constitutional defects.
I’m also rather suspicious of the whole perception of a closed-off geek ghetto that leads many to caricature the genre community as populated by sad social misfits and delayed (or permanent) adolescents. Ironic, I’m as guilty of that caricature as any – see above – but then, what feeds the troll? Or rather, what creates a troll-friendly environment? Where is this coming from? Couldn’t this sustained puerilization of the geek community have as much to do with censorious policies that force it to be forever adolescent, as much as genre marketing priorities that target boys? Precisely by preventing full expression of genuinely mature sexual topics, and thereby involving actual adults and adult attitudes, aren’t these policies reinforcing immaturity and social exclusion, acting as a magnet or safe zone for immature personalities, and preventing their maturation, by prohibiting exposure to the kind of material, conversations and company that would actually enable and require them to mature?
And if all this prohibition and censorship is supposed to protect our vulnerable young, I’ve got to wonder who’s getting protected. Obviously not the girls who get harassed at cons. Not Zoe Quinn. Not Chelsea Cain. Not Leslie Jones. Not the women, including celebrated writers, groped and molested by Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison, among others. And pure horror writing, as against the broader field of related imaginative genres, definitely isn’t immune to such problems as online harassment and body shaming. Probably the only ones really getting protected are the type of sad git who Tweeted a propos the Chelsea Cain controversy that “comics are the last safe space for men,” and that “Women have novels. They don’t need to take over comics as well.” Whose infantile paradise contains no … ahem … graphic content, involving actual female bodies, and personalities, but endless nubile Spandex playdolls.
How refreshing, in contrast, to turn to European continental literature, where sexual content is accepted as a basic ingredient of serious literature. I have huge issues with the values and focus of the work of Michel Houellebecq, for example, but I understand and accept that its sexual subject matter is integral to its claims to any literary standing at all. Ditto Alain Robbe-Grillet. With the likes of Georges Bataille and Anaïs Nin, there are not even any such issues. In the English-language context, I don’t think there’s any argument that William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard wrote science fiction that is also accepted as serious literature. Transgressive sexual content, whether it’s adolescent boys being throttled in Naked Lunch or sex-death auto porn in Crash, is absolutely central to the broader concerns of the writing. To a degree, it’s fundamental to its value as serious literature. In “The Pornographic Imagination,” Susan Sontag defines the transgressive artist as “a freelance explorer of spiritual dangers,” producing work whose value is judged by its “originality, thoroughness, authenticity and power.” I shouldn’t need to underline how art created according to such criteria can tick any number of boxes for those who judge art by its social utility, as well as achieving the highest merits when considered as art.
As a first step towards maturation of the genre community, would it be so hard to maintain more adult content tracks and zones, as at Marcon, rather than blanket bans? I wouldn’t buy any argument that maintaining mature content zones would burden cons unduly. Cons clearly can and already do operate a highly sophisticated, time-consuming and expensive policy about sexual issues – in the shape of their anti-harassment policies. They can surely take similar, or far less, time and trouble to manage and police mature zones, where explicit material is presented and discussed. Conference organizers may fear for their reputations or licenses if they do such a thing, but the choice is either to address this issue like adults, with a legitimate right to adult self-expression, or to knuckle under to the current mindset – which shows no sign of deterring the bad publicity over harassment in any case. Embrace more grown-up content in the broad genre community, and you have a slight chance of a more grown-up genre community, with more grown-up standards of behaviour. That could only be an improvement. As for editors and publishers, at least nuance your restrictions on explicit content, if you’re not prepared to drop them entirely, and if need be, be prepared to stand up for the value of such content. Many do. Many don’t.
I’ll conclude with a quote from Burroughs that is always getting pushed out at the inspirational Facebook meme level: “There is no intensity of love or feeling that does not involve the risk of crippling hurt. It is a duty to take this risk, to love and feel without defense or reserve.” Love of whatever kind. And as a publisher, editor, conference organizer, or other member of the genre fiction community, I do believe you have a duty to take that risk and stand up for that love, by enabling, embracing and welcoming its expression in clear accordance with First Amendment rights. And for any number of others, in every sense, GTFU.
I read a lot of weird fiction and weird horror. Since I was drawn in to reviewing the stuff for Teleread and elsewhere, I’ve been reading it not only constantly but semi-professionally. Recently, I was also lucky enough to land a detailed interview about my own new book, and horror in general, from John Linwood Grant on his greydogtales blog, where I came out with some statements, largely inspired by all that reading, which I’d now like to qualify and clarify. I also digested some extended comments on the interview on the Facebook group for Thinking Horror, which nudged me towards saying more.
Primarily, I want to expand on what I’ve been saying about quiet horror, compared to other types of horror. This isn’t intended as a blanket criticism of quiet horror as a sub-genre (whatever my reservations about pressing any definition of a sub-genre into service as a marketing category), but more as a prophylactic against lazy, pedestrian, or otherwise imperfectly realized quiet horror, as well as a reminder that other styles of horror do exist, with reason. If anything, it’s a plea for some – but not all – quiet horror writers to spread their wings and raise their game, as well as a cautionary note about the sub-genre’s shortcomings.
This is also an inquiry into the influence of Robert Aickman, who seems to be becoming as much of an exemplar and model for current horror authors as H.P. Lovecraft was a decade or two ago, and into just where that could be leading (or misleading) some writers. In his introduction to the 2014 Faber & Faber edition of Aickman’s first collection, Dark Entries, Richard T. Kelly claims that “he was the finest horror writer of the last hundred years,” and that “at times, it’s hard to see how any subsequent practitioner could stand anywhere but in his shadow.” So it’s obvious that some savants have great expectations, at least, of his influence.
Many, many delineations of quiet horror seem to lean on what it isn’t – which is usually much more clearly defined than what it is. As Selena Chambers said in a recent round-table on quiet horror, “when we think of Horror, we think of the visceral: gore, blood, mutilation, slasher, demons, devils, and monsters.” Against this, she contrasts “the more implicit aspects of the horrific that to me are more spiritual, philosophic, symbolic, mythological, metaphysical, etc.” This isn’t to pick fights with Selena Chambers’ fine body of work, but merely to highlight this heavily underlined contrast. And here’s Paula Cappa in 2013 extolling quiet horror: “Quiet horror stories do not feed you blunt visceral violence: no gore-is-more philosophy; no bloody slasher meisters, no cheap thrills. Quiet horror hits a high key when it stimulates the intellect (sometimes even to the point of being a tad cerebral).” Once again, she weights her definition of quiet horror heavily towards what it isn’t, rather than what it is. And, she continues, “often, this quiet darkness will hold a message that is not only cleverly hidden but also symbolic. That ‘Ah-ha’ moment is one we all love to experience.” And elsewhere on the Kboards, she says, “I just can’t handle all the blood gore that’s out there.”
Blunt visceral violence? Blood gore? Sounds like the Old Testament to me. Or tragedy – Greek or Jacobean style. Or Zola. Rabelais is visceral. So is Tom Jones. More on that below, but in summary, why privilege the exclusion of blood and viscera from horror, when they slop and slosh around the commanding heights of Western literature?
The obvious, no-brainer argument cited recently in Publishers Weekly, “links many readers’ reflexive disinterest in horror fiction to their dislike of slasher stories and movies.” One consequence is the shuffling aside of horror into other genres that you’re more ready to be seen in public with. Look at Tor’s 2016 Halloween reading list of “9 Horrifying Books That Aren’t Shelved as Horror.” But once we move past the presumed kneejerk reactions of a broad reading public, which many writers and literary folk appear to presume on without actually checking that kneejerk reflex, is that really the end of the story about a preference among writers and committed horror/weird fiction fans for quiet horror, or even the emergence, or re-emergence, of that category?
One other reason, which Joyce Carol Oates kindly put on the table in her October 31, 1999, New York Review of Books article on H.P. Lovecraft, “The King of Weird,” could be the principle of tacit contract. There, Oates affirms that: “Readers of genre fiction, unlike readers of what we presume to call ‘literary fiction,’ assume a tacit contract between themselves and the writer: they understand that they will be manipulated, but the question is how? and when? and with what skill? and to what purpose? However plot-ridden, fantastical, or absurd, populated by whatever pseudo-characters, genre fiction is always resolved, while ‘literary fiction’ makes no such promises; there is no contract between reader and writer.”
Actually, I don’t think that’s so. With some literary fiction, at least, and its readers, there is an all too obvious tacit contract – a social contract. Look at Jonathan Franzen, and his advocates and promoters – who apparently weren’t that ready to sign up for Paul Beatty’s brilliant, subversive satire, which still managed to win the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction and the Man Booker Prize. As The Guardian‘s writeup of Beatty’s win asserted, a large swathe of America’s supposed literary reading public “have little patience for work that plays with their own expectations of what a book might be.” The tacit contract which that swathe signed up for appears to involve grooming their intellectual vanity, while reinforcing and validating their felt social pre-eminence by flattering their sensibility and refinement. Not all literary fiction is guilty of that bad bargain – but then not all genre fiction is guilty of reaching a mechanical resolution in obedience to its own tacit contract. And I’d shudder to think of horror, or any other genre for that matter, signing up to the Franzenesque social contract, for its particular set of deliverables. Even if it is the contract insisted on by some supposed gatekeepers of the walled garden of serious literary status.
Robert Aickman fits into that quiet-versus-nasty dichotomy in more ways than just the most obvious one of being an almost caricature snooty Brit, as man and writer. M. John Harrison, a fellow Brit cut from a very different cloth, came up with a penetrating insight into Aickman in a 2015 interview with Twisted Tales, that his “obliquity and reserve” amounts to “symbolism that doesn’t quite mesh with – or even entirely admit to – its own subject matter. For me the Weird was always a kind of perverted or broken Imagism.”
What does Harrison mean by that? Short of asking the guy, here’s my interpretation. Central to Imagism was the Ideogrammic Method, “a technique expounded by Ezra Pound which allowed poetry to deal with abstract content through concrete images.” In Aickman’s case, the concrete images are his often extraordinary and ambiguous situations and occurrences. And the perverted or broken part? The underlying abstract content or subject matter that Aickman doesn’t want to admit to, or coordinate his images with.
How does this personal and stylistic issue chime with the Franzenesque bargain of supposed literary seriousness? Well, one way is that if you have a knack for a certain tone, a certain feel for significant omissions, it can be surprisingly easy to produce mysterious, allusive, cryptic fiction. You can even seem profound. You can win kudos for being, as China Miéville dubbed Lovecraft, “a neurotically acute barometer of society’s psychic disorders,” without having the number-crunching nous to actually graduate from barometrics to models and simulations of those disorders. All you need do is project a vague obscurity that readers can beam their own imaginative projections on. It’s a technique, maybe even an artful one. Is it actually that… uh… deep?
Aickman himself provides a justification for his obliquity and reserve, which I haven’t seen bettered anywhere else in his writing, in the first story of his first collection, Dark Entries, published in 1964. In “The School Friend,” he puts these words into the friendly, sympathetic mouth of the protagonist’s father: “‘Mel,’ said my father, ‘you’re supposed to write novels. Haven’t you noticed by this time that everyone’s lives are full of things you can’t understand? The exceptional thing is the thing you can understand. I remember a man I knew when I was first in London . . .’ He broke off. ‘But fortunately we don’t have to understand. And for that reason we’ve no right to scrutinise other people’s lives too closely’.” I can’t imagine anyone except perhaps Robert Fordyce Aickman seriously advocating that conclusion as a worthwhile position for a writer to hold, never mind a writer of the inexplicably strange, but I strongly suspect that Aickman did adhere to it. There’s plenty more in his critical writing along the same lines, which I’ll go into below. But how can a writer be hailed, as Peter Straub did, as “this century’s most profound writer of what we call horror stories,” when he implicitly and explicitly refuses to inquire explicitly into the mysteries of the human heart? Where’s the profound in that?
Aickman did at least work around his lacunae with tremendous, conspicuous, artfulness, but more subsequent quiet horror than I’d like to see seems to me to be stylistically unambitious, in a way that much current horror writing, gloriously, isn’t. And I’m not talking about subtle shifts of perspective or narrative voice, I’m talking about full-on experimental prose. I’ve tried not to mention too many current names in this article so as not to press-gang perfectly good writers into either side of an argument they probably won’t want to take sides in, but I can think without effort of at least three modern weird horror authors I’ve read in the past month alone who produce fantastic original prose that is conspicuously unquiet. (And yes, to be fair, I can think of one equally gifted writer of quiet horror – who promptly polevaulted midway through a shortish collection from quiet to utterly disquieting unquiet.) Some quiet horror writing, alas, looks to me to be in too much danger of striking the Franzenesque bargain of not upsetting expectations.
Or let’s hear China Miéville on a different kind of tacit bargain: “One of the ways of panning for credibility in the pulpstream is to nod and wink at the reader that one is far too sophisticated to not know what one is doing, using all these popular devices. At its worst, this becomes a tedious nodding at the audience: I’ve called this the postmodernism of philistines.” In contrast, he advocates “retaining the firefights and cliffhangers,” precisely “because the tradition of page-turning storytelling is exciting and interesting.”
Quiet horror, unlike those firefights and cliffhangers, seems to me too often to be just written in a quiet tone. This isn’t just a matter of setting, drama or lack thereof, or presence or absence of incident, or gore, or scale, or scope. I’d hesitate to describe any of Poe’s classic horror tales as quiet, even when they contain no massive dramas, no cast of thousands, no earthquakes, simply because of their sustained hysteria, the compacted breakneck style that does such a good job of acting out as well as describing insane frenzy. Plus, intimation (not imitation) makes for poor differentiation. If you are writing in the same general milieu and register as your peers, and excluding certain imaginative resources and literary devices from your work, keeping to the same tonal palette of muted shades, the same pianissimo dynamic, you are going to need very distinctive personal gifts and ideas to be able to stand out from the crowd. Not all quiet horror writers possess those – or perhaps, their individual gifts could flourish better outside quiet horror.
That’s one instance of what we might be missing out on when we keep quiet. I also spoke in my greydogtales interview about Lovecraft’s espousal of The Cult of the Capital Letters. What I meant by that was his success in world-building, all those proper nouns for improperly improbable Things. China Miéville outlined what’s at issue here in his grudging tribute to Tolkien: “His genius lay in his neurotic, self-contained, paranoid creation of a secondary world. That act of profoundly radical geekery reversed the hitherto-existing fantasy subcreation … It’s precisely this approach, the subject of most scorn from the ‘mainstream’, which is Tolkien’s most truly radical and seminal moment. His literalised fantastic of setting means an impossible world which believes in itself.” The fabulous fabulisitic vigour to build worlds across multiple stories, or forcefully enough in a single tale to detain readers within that imagined world, seems too often lacking in much quiet horror. Even Aickman does it – for example, in “The Wine-Dark Sea” or “Niemandswasser.” And yes, world-building is all about fulfilled tacit bargains – even more so when those worlds are reamed out into entire franchises. But I don’t have an issue with bargains as such – so long as they’re open and honest ones. And much of the best fiction in any genre always teases, plays with the reader’s expectations, threatens to unpick that grand bargain, keeps the audience on tenterhooks by artfully withholding the bargained-for resolution. Escapist bargains? Snobbist bargains? Take your pick.
M.R. James is another horror writer who’s an escapist world-builder in a different, very charming way. And what lies beneath his delightful unity of tone and period colour? A surprising diversity of period, setting, and subject matter. A series of suggestively sketched schemata that outline the supernatural premises of the stories without killing off the sense of mystery and wonder. A crawling thing of slime. A tentacled monster that sucks your face off. A Bluebeard who cuts the beating hearts out of living children. Was that really what genteel Edwardian readers signed up for? Regardless, that’s what they got. Some quiet.
Another aspect to the quiet-versus-unquiet debate, picking up from that point about M.R. James, is the intellectual content of horror stories – in the sense of the actual working out of overtly articulated ideas or premises. Personally, I do love fantastic horror that typifies the definition articulated by Tzvetan Todorov, where “the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural or supernatural explanation of the events described.” That hesitation and ambiguity creates a delicious push in a story towards a resolution that may or may not actually come, and the doubt around the basis of events can reach to the deepest levels of existential or philosophical doubt. But that isn’t in any way to decry more overtly supernatural horror, and horror of any kind that hinges on an armature of explicitly articulated ideas. And yes, horror that too explicitly spells out the supernatural rationale [sic.] for its uncanny occurrences, or the various rules that vampires or ghosts are or aren’t constrained by in this particular story, often loses the imaginative nimbus of wonder, but writing that works out new implications of ideas, and even uses ideas to inspire the imagination, can often gain more than it loses, as well as exhibiting a mind that genuinely does have the power to reason, well, a little bit profoundly. Look at John Langan’s The Wide, Carnivorous Sky, for example. (And yes, that’s breaking my own embargo on living examples, but it’s too good to miss.)
Development of ideas can obviously be done in a quiet context, even through a datadump, but often it fits just as well into a more physical, dramatic exploration of those ideas. You absolutely can have unquiet horror that’s more than a tad cerebral. Fiction without such a skeleton of ideas isn’t necessarily lacking in depth or value, but fiction with it definitely has unmistakable solidity and substance. And fiction that hints at underlying prophetic profundity through sleight of hand, but never actually delivers on deep insights, despite the many hints and nudges, disconnects and void spaces, in its narrative? Weeelll …
Aickman might well not have agreed. He certainly spent much ink in his series of introductions to the Fontana Books of Great Ghost Stories arguing against any intellectual approach that seeks overt explanation and articulation, eulogizing the submerged nine-tenths of unconscious mental experience, and declaring that the ghost story “need offer neither logic nor moral,” and that “everything that matters is indefinable.” That may or may not be so, but it definitely indicates what we might lose if we stick too closely to the mode of Aickmanesque quiet horror. H.P. Lovecraft, meanwhile, produced some of the most philosophically provocative modern horror – provocative enough to have inspired works of actual philosophy – in a pulp fiction ambience of tentacled jellies from outer space.
Then there’s the question of truth to personal experience, which situates a fair share of the quiet horror I’ve read within the same social setting, and even the same area code, as the author. What informs and inspires each writer’s imagination and talent is always a personal matter, but why feel any obligation to Stick To What You Know, when for one thing, mainstream literary fiction no longer heeds that obligation, and for another, what you know, at the most immediate remove, consists of real horror probably far beyond what you could dream up from first principles? Aleppo. ERs. Drive-by shootings. Social disintegration to match any horror seen in Dunwich. The great dying of over 50% of all animal life within the past half century. If you live the kind of quiet life where quiet horror is the only kind you are ever likely to personally encounter, then you are very lucky. And I don’t mean just lucky in the personal sense, though that certainly helps. I mean lucky in the social, economic, geopolitical, even historical sense. Unquiet horror, or at least horror with a broader compass, is one of the genres that might help your imaginative sympathy with, and understanding of, the other, very real, horrors outside your immediate comfort zone. Aickman would probably not have agreed: among the bad reasons he lists for choosing to read ghost stories, “the worst is the quest for a sadistic thrill, something that is better sought in a daily newspaper.” But there are far more positive reasons than sadism, despite Aickman’s repeated assertions, to read unquiet horror.
Writing of W.B. Yeats, Edmund Wilson referred to the literary style of the 17th century as a “personal thing” which “fitted the author like a suit of clothes and molded itself to the natural contours of his temperament and mind.” Aickman to me seems a self-conscious artist to a degree that perhaps even now still isn’t fully appreciated, but no great thinker, and I fear that some of his fans encounter the one, but come expecting or hoping for the other. And his style I find cut far too tight and narrow for my taste. It cramps my style, period. And I’d hate to think of other writers fitting themselves into that mould unless it really does suit them personally, or unless they have very clear and well-thought-out reasons for doing so. Mere awe at his artistry really isn’t enough.
Thomas Ligotti, a horror writer profound enough to have written an entire work of pessimistic philosophy, insists that “literature is entertainment or it is nothing.” For most of literary history in the West at least, the canonical literary forms, the exemplars, were the epic or the tragic. Neither of those was remotely quiet. And horror is one of the genres that can still tap into the resources of wonder and terror, visceral entertainment and sublime pathos, that fuelled those forms. Only since the Industrial Revolution has quiet literature stepped to the fore. If literature, for most of the time that literature has existed, whether written or recited, didn’t feel any onus to be quiet, why should we now?[Top]
TRANSGRESSION, LOVECRAFT AND INNER DEMONS: PAUL ST.JOHN MACKINTOSH
OCTOBER 20, 2016
“Too much modern weird seems to me to lack the full courage of its premises or imaginative convictions…” Yes, today’s mega-interview is thought-provoking and a bit different. If you like your weird fiction to be on the safe side, you might not want to go much further. We’re interviewing Paul St.John Mackintosh, a writer who challenged us, not because of his poetic prose but because of his themes and content. So we’ll explain.
Earlier this year Paul St.John Mackintosh published a collection of short stories which intrigued us, Black Propaganda, also known as Blowback. Initially we weren’t sure if this was the sort of thing we should cover on greydogtales, given the broad audience we have, but we’re surprisingly experimental in our personal tastes. As we read it, we saw that there was such diversity and style in the collection that we wanted to have a go. So we asked Paul if we could work our way through and around his subject matter for a feature interview. And we did, resulting in a fascinating exploration of his work, his motivation and a lot of issues relevant to weird fiction today.
Serious Note: Whilst this interview is ‘Safe For Work’, certain tales in Black Propaganda itself are pretty graphic, so be warned.
“Mackintosh engages with the written word as a creative expression of some cleansing fire of the spirit, an act of atonement that builds rather than destroys, an orgasmic confession joining pain to redemption that instills a sense of almost voyeuristic guilt in the reader who will likely be unable to look away: perhaps fascinated, perhaps repulsed, perhaps changed… and certainly never bored.”
Nicholas Shipman, Metaphysical Circus
greydog: Welcome to greydogtales, Paul. We’ll come to your new collection of short stories Black Propaganda in a minute, but let’s set the scene first. You’re a Scottish-born literary and tech journalist who spends a lot of time in Hungary and has an obvious familiarity with Asia. Are you a ‘writer without borders’, an internationalist?
paul: Scottish raised, not Scottish born. I’m the only one among my sibs that wasn’t born north of the Border. That’s led to some questions and choices about identity, and I do consciously identify with my Scottish heritage. Not least because there’s a dreadful debilitating cringe factor, a stooping of the shoulders, about being a writer, or anything smart and clever, in English society. The English are anti-intellectual in a way that Scots aren’t, and you can see the consequences in Brexit. In Scotland, a writer can stand fully erect.
Plus, as a Scottish writer you’re freed of the burden of English respectability – Alasdair Gray, probably Scotland’s greatest living author, wrote “1982, Janine” and “Something Leather.” There’s also a very fruitful Scottish trait that one critic lumbered with the monicker “Caledonian Antisyzygy” – meaning that a Scot is essentially a divided, bipolar individual. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote superbly about the consequences.
That said, I believe a strong sense of identity is a great starting point for engaging with other identities and cultures. Scots often flourish abroad, and Scotland’s vote against Brexit shows that it is no island nation. I always felt that British shores, like normal life, were too suffocating and confining, and strove to get out of them from the start. I got into Asian studies primarily because Chinese philosophy offered a conceptual base totally distinct from the Western tradition, and a truly different perspective on things. My years based out of Hong Kong were a massive adventure, and others just keep coming.
greydog: And you’re an associate editor for TeleRead, about which we know nothing. A quick explanation, perhaps?
paul: TeleRead plays to my geek side. When I moved to Hong Kong in 1999, the only way I could get cheap literature in English was online, so I got into ebooks early. And TeleRead, focused primarily on ebooks and electronic publishing, but embracing book reviews, anti-censorship, copyright issues, libraries, etc., covered just about everything that I care about in the writing life. I don’t write as much for it as I used to, but I do still care as much about its core priorities.
greydog: You have a history and arts background, and you started publishing poetry, we believe, with collections such as The Golden Age in 1997. Was prose fiction a secondary development?
paul: I started with prose, writing a couple of very adolescent novels in my early twenties, but from university onwards I put most of my literary effort into poetry and translation. Prose was on the back burner for the longest time, until events around the breakup of my second marriage in 2011-12 pushed me over the final hurdle as a prose writer, and also dragged in the horror and science fiction influences I’d grown up with.
greydog: Few people have an easily definable set of influences (we certainly don’t), but were there other authors who you found particularly important as you developed your writing?
paul: In poetry, it’s the great English poet Geoffrey Hill, and the German visionary Expressionist Georg Trakl. In prose, more stylistic influences than I can count, but in literary stance it’s the three B’s: J.G. Ballard, Georges Bataille, and William Burroughs. Plus Stevenson, M.R. James, G.K. Chesterton, Vernon Lee, Robert Aickman, Poe, Borges, Machen, Chambers, etc. etc. In modern horror, the two L’s: Lovecraft and Ligotti.
greydog: So, to your latest book. Your introduction to Black Propaganda is poetic, as we might expect, and somewhat challenging, almost a credo. It also hints at life events which have had a heavy cost. We’re not a psychoanalytic site, but maybe you could say something about this in general terms?
paul: The emotional motor behind most of those stories, and a whole lot besides, was my emergence as a member of the BDSM community in 1999, and everything that happened subsequently. The dominance and submission subculture is almost as developed as the LGBT community it often overlaps with, and many of its denizens take a long and difficult journey before finding themselves there. For me, it led to the breakup of my first marriage and my whole life up to that date, my first great love affair, and my move from London to Asia. My second marriage broke up under similar circumstances, not least due to misunderstandings about how consensual BDSM works. I now lecture within the BDSM community on relationship safety and avoiding predatory or sociopathic partners – from personal experience.
greydog: The collection is idiosyncratic in that the range of the stories is extremely broad in content, theme and period. On a practical, publishing level, was this designed to show various aspects of your writing, a sort of retrospective of the last few years, or did you want it to demonstrate your versatility?
paul: I wrote several stories in Black Propaganda as homages to writers and other influences I loved. I had the psychological underpinnings mapped out, but could dress them up in different guises. So, “Firmware” and “Coma Berenice” were partly in honour of William Gibson. “The Island of Dr Bataille” was a homage to H.G. Wells and Joseph Conrad, but also Patrick O’Brian. “Master of Darkness” was a nod to Hammer horror, and “An American Werewolf in London.” “Drones” riffs off Peter Watts. The shorter prose poems are Ballardian effusions. And so on.
There’s another deeper unity beneath the range, though. Partly it’s the sexual aspect, of course. But it’s also the nature of horror as I conceive it – concerned fundamentally with numinous dread, existential terror, Panic fear, the irruption of something outside human experience into ordinary life. That Thing can be supernatural, but it can also be science-fictional, or some horrible coincidence or fateful turn of events, or some twist in the human soul that calls into question everything we believe about personality or consistent identity. All boil down to the same tragic revelation. Horror crystallizes life’s 1001 ways of reminding us how little we know and how insignificant we are.
greydog: It would be ill-advised of us to go into the darker and more transgressive aspects of some of the stories here. Suffice it to say that you explore extremely violent and sexual themes in tales such as “The Princess and the Dragon” and “The First Circus of the Year”. There’s a strong ritualistic element in a number of your stories, isn’t there?
paul: Many of the stories are about my own sadism, but that’s not my basic concern: the internet is bulging with hardcore S&M erotica these days, and if I was trying to get people off, I wouldn’t be referencing the history of classical theatre. Rather, I’m interested in what all this implies and unlocks. If there is a ritual element in some stories, it may come from the protocols of the BDSM lifestyle, established to ensure consent and protect participants.
“The Princess and the Dragon,” for instance, recasts my first serious BDSM relationship – names and places have been changed to protect the guilty, but a lot of the sexual detail is pretty accurate. Also, though, ritual can reveal the sadism and power relations encoded into our social norms – from hazings to Trump rallies, ritual is a great way of sanitizing our less savoury tendencies. And all of this raises questions about human identity, free will, the pursuit of happiness, etc. that some more simplistic versions of public ethics prefer to ignore.
Furthermore, the English-speaking genre community seems to have far more trouble with certain sexual themes than the mainstream literary community does, especially in Europe. In England, this is about respectability; in the US, it too often seems to be about market-driven pre-emptive self-censorship in deference to pressure from the evangelical Right. A pity, because, for example, if H P Lovecraft’s worldview did owe much to sexual repression, then more mature engagement with that could really benefit the whole cosmic horror genre. I think it’s sad and very significant that Stephen King seems to have so much trouble writing about sex and sexual themes.
greydog: Some of the prose images you provide are directly disturbing. In one or two cases we might argue about the interpretation which could be put upon the stories, however much we appreciated the writing itself. Did you consciously court controversy as you wrote, or did the stories just need to come out?
paul: They needed to come out, but that coming out was in every sense – publicly owning up to, owning, who I am. I wrote what I wrote to be as clear as I could about where I stand. I had very strong personal reasons around the breakup of my second marriage, where I felt I’d been fundamentally misunderstood, for wanting to do that. One reason I opted for prose was that poetry no longer allowed me to write out what I was going through. Even the decision to publish under my own name rather than a pseudonym was part of that. Rightly or wrongly, I felt that any attempt to hide would have been an admission that there was something to hide, a guilt reflex, a concession to prejudice. And I reject that.
Plus, controversial or not, I aimed to take a public stance on behalf of the BDSM community. The longer people keep this spectrum of inclinations in the dark, the more pernicious the results. I’d rather have transgressive fiction than damaged lives, and I saw plenty of the latter stemming from the culture of secrecy and shame around BDSM. Secrecy facilitates misrepresentation, exploitation, blackmail and abuse – just as it does in the LGBT community, or in boarding schools. But so long as consent is there, there is no issue – straight, gay, bi, dom/me, sub, move along, nothing to see here. So stand up and be counted.
I changed the title “Black Propaganda” for the paperback edition to “Blowback” for the ebook edition. That’s not an attempt to curry favour – I just thought it was the right thing to do at the time. POC buddies agreed.
greydog: You’ll be aware that we slip in and out of the Lovecraftian and post-Lovecraftian worlds here from time to time. In stories such as “Drones” and “The People of the Island”, you draw on (and develop) Mythosian themes of possession and miscegenation. Many writers talk about ‘moving’ on from Lovecraft, or re-interpreting his approaches. Where do you feel his body of fiction stands? Do you think we are coming to the end of his influence on what we might call weird fiction?
paul: I get as bored by endless Yog-Sothothery as anyone, and I don’t write much that’s Strictly Mythos. But in some ways I believe we’re only at the start of Lovecraft’s influence. His racism, for one thing, is already producing some brilliant fictional subversions of his prejudices, the best possible refutations of them – if the best Mythos fiction is coming from LGBT or POC authors, where does that leave his views?
What interests me more, though, is the whole phenomenon of a Mythos, a.k.a. The Cult of the Capital Letters. China Miéville in 2005 wrote about Tolkien: “His genius lay in his neurotic, self-contained, paranoid creation of a secondary world” which “comes before the stories that occur within it … an impossible world which believes in itself.” The Mythos is an all-too-possible world which believes in itself, thanks to Lovecraft’s atheistic, scientific grounding, and Miéville dubs Lovecraft “a neurotically acute barometer of society’s psychic disorders,” after the shattering of “Modernity’s conception of itself as a rational, humane system.”
Lovecraft managed to create an existentially subversive counterweight to ordinary reality that’s far more persuasive than Middle Earth, and it’s no coincidence that those two literary properties inspired the two most successful franchises in RPGs. That level of imaginative power, that testament to the creative achievement of world-building, is not going to go away, and I’d love to see more of it in the modern weird. M. John Harrison came up with a penetrating insight into Aickman in a 2015 interview with Twisted Tales, that his “obliquity and reserve” amounts to “symbolism that doesn’t quite mesh with – or even entirely admit to – its own subject matter. For me the Weird was always a kind of perverted or broken Imagism.”
Too much modern weird seems to me to lack the full courage of its premises or imaginative convictions, and that’s a danger I also see in “quiet horror.” Discreet tweaks, nudges or nips and tucks at our world-view only amount to a fraction of the genre’s true power, IMHO. Fritz Leiber’s “Our Lady of Darkness” is one great example of how to go the distance without detouring into Mythos fiction. And there’s Ligotti’s challenge: “If you have nothing but bad news to offer, then you had better write in a sterling and entertaining manner.” The more entertainment value in the genre, the better.
Plus, Lovecraft’s thesis that modern social consensus reality is a tenuous veil over a conspiracy of dark forces that are, at bottom, mad seems a pretty accurate one these days. Ballard arrived at the same conclusion from a different direction.
greydog: The Cult of Capital Letters is a recurring issue, and we’ve said elsewhere that some of this is driven by a mixture of readers, reviewers and marketing departments, all three groups seeking a way of stamping a blunt identity on what might be better left uncapitalised. We’ve been guilty of it ourselves when trying to attract a particular audience’s attention, and we’re not sure how to escape it entirely. Anyway, who do you read, and admire, in the field as it stands at the moment?
paul: There are so many strong writers at work in the modern weird/dark renaissance that it’s hard to know where to begin. Ligotti, obviously. Laird Barron. Nick Mamatas. Gemma Files. John Langan. Richard Gavin. Livia Llewellyn. Nathan Ballingrud. Matthew M. Bartlett. Lynda E. Rucker. Liz Hand. Joe Pulver. Simon Strantzas. Peter Watts. Charles Stross. And many more. I’m very lucky that my review work for TeleRead and other sites allows me to read pretty much all of them. And the work that Michael Kelly, Ross E. Lockhart, and Raymond Russell are doing collating, anthologizing and publishing all this stuff is immense.
greydog: Good list, with some true talent there. Finally, what’s the next step after Black Propaganda?
paul: I’m always working on fresh ideas, and have two novelette-length stories under way right now. One is part of a bigger connected series of cosmic horror war stories set in World War Two. I’m also working on another series of cosmic horror tales set in the 16th-century Venetian Empire. And I’ve got a short near-future ecopocalyptic novel on the back burner. I don’t plan to spend as much time on erotic horror as I did previously, but new story ideas are always coming up. One project as editor I’d love to find a publisher for is an anthology of transgressive cosmic horror entitled “Forbidden Texts”: I already know a few authors I’d love to invite. Any takers?!
greydog: Probably John Linwood Grant, in his darker moods. Many thanks for a thoroughly enjoyable interview, and we’ll definitely be picking up your next works.
Done and mostly dusted. Join us in a couple of days, probably for something less transgressive but hopefully just as interesting…[Top]
Last item first. It wasn’t about kneejerk political correctness. If I was that concerned about dogmatic PC, I wouldn’t have been writing about hardcore dominance and submission, human trafficking, and human sacrifice in the first place. I first came up with the title around 2014, in Budapest, when I started putting my dark and weird short and (nominally) erotic fiction together on a plan dating back to 2012. I went with it till early 2016, when I worked out the cover design and jacket image with my (Danish) publisher. I liked the cover so much that I put it out on Facebook for the horror/dark/weird fiction community. I had plenty of positive feedback, and no cautions or criticisms. I liked it so much that I made a t-shirt out of it. Then I looked at the design, and thought again. I asked some members of the same community whether they thought anyone would object to the title or cover design in the context of Black Lives Matter. They said no one in the horror/dark/weird community would notice or mind. I asked: what if I wore it as a t-shirt? Pause. Then: Better not do that. I tried the same test with a bunch of US media/journalism academics at the Central European University in Budapest. Same reaction.
I wouldn’t presume to speak for Black Lives Matter. There are others far better positioned to do that than me, from a far more informed and involved point of view. This time at least, I have to talk about me. And inadvertently, I had ended up with something that could, at a glance, or through a casual misreading, be seen as endorsing the Fox News/Bill O’Reilly/All Lives Matter bleating and barracking of the movement. A casual misreading as in, passing on the street, on a t-shirt. And if you can’t wear your slogan, on the street on a t-shirt, there is a problem with your slogan, no?
I couldn’t claim to be unaware of the issue, from the moment I first realized this. Way back when I was first mulling over titles, in Hungary, perhaps. But certainly not now. So I had to take a position on it. Practically, if I just wasn’t able to change the title, I would have to live with it. But the space between print book and e-book edition gave me some room for reflection. And the original print edition with its original title is still there, lest anyone suspect me of trying to (ahem…) whitewash myself, and airbrush out my past choices. But if I didn’t at least try to make a change, to my mind, I would be either indifferent to the Black Lives Matter movement … or worse. In any case, not acknowledging it. And even within the dark/weird/SF/horror fiction community, after recent debates on inclusion, H.P Lovecraft’s bust in the World Fantasy Awards, the Rabid Puppies assault on the Hugo Awards, etc. such choices do have resonance.
This is not a neutral context, if it ever was, and it is a space where I could make a public choice. A relatively small, insignificant space, fine, free from harm or consequences beyond a few sales gained or lost – but my own space, the one involving and implicating me, where I got to exercise personal responsibility. My space to make authentic choices, as author, not bandwagon-jumper or well-wisher; choices that directly impacted me, with implications for my own writing career; choices that put my skin in the game, however trivially, and allowed me to take a stand and do the right thing.
I also anticipated that some critics, on all sides, might accuse me of selfish opportunism, currying favour with a fashionable group for self-promotion and audience share, parlaying the suffering of others into a bigger readership with zero personal pain. Yes, I did think about market, and audience. But that kind of priority surely also acknowledges that Black Lives Matter. Black readers matter. Their opinion, their spend, their sensitivities, their economic as well as their political and moral power, matter. If you literally cannot afford to be indifferent to them, then that is exactly how things should be.
So why did I choose “Black Propaganda” as the title in the first place? First off, because partners and other members of the BDSM community were regularly referring to my sexuality as “dark” – and the stories in the book all ultimately stemmed from my own sexuality, as an exponent of the BDSM lifestyle. And of course, to evoke Fifty Shades of Youknowwhat. And because the collection is dark fiction. But I took the term itself from psychological warfare terminology, because it suggested exactly the kind of self-questioning, self-subverting, backbiting, reciprocal, ironic, self-interrogation that I wanted for the book’s focus on BDSM-style dominance and submission – a title that questions its own premises and implies that it may be the direct opposite of what it appears to be on the surface. Because of the mutual dependency, the interdependence, the sharing, that lies at the root of consensual power exchange and BDSM. Also because of “propaganda” in the original Roman Catholic sense – propagation of a dogma, in this case the dogma of dominance and submission. With again, the implication that this is a creed whose practice absolutely contradicts its explicit premises.
And why “Blowback”? Because it has a similar pedigree in psywarops terminology, and also describes something that rebounds on and undercuts its explicit purpose. And an obvious sexual implication. And also because it describes pretty much what happened to my first choice of title – unintended or unforeseen consequences. In fact, the new title fits the book so well that I don’t even need to change a single line of the original foreword to accommodate it. And that also reflects how any book is in a state of evolving, even reactive dialogue with its audience.
Except that part of that audience is literally in the firing line. Facing military grade firepower, or insanely empowered itchy-finger vigilantism. Facing plenty more besides, and elsewhere, certainly, but let’s focus on that one, uniquely American, thing that started this whole movement off in the first place. Dickens may have protested (quietly) against slavery in America in the 1840s; Einstein may have protested far more vociferously against segregation in the 1920s and 30s: neither was directly protesting against summary, serial, judicially sanctioned, public execution on suspicion, on the streets, without trial. Post Civil Rights. In a notionally free, fair and democratic country. To riff off Joss Whedon’s remarks when asked why he writes strong female characters: Black Lives Matter. Because what’s the alternative?