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…