My article on Lovecraft, N.K. Jemisin, and other current Lovecraftian controversies, on Greydogtales.
There are many reasons to despise fascism, but for me, one of the most telling is its cowardice. I could be wrong, but I don’t ever remember anyone describing Marxism, Maoism, or any other Left totalitarianism as creeds of fear. Senseless cruelty and brutality to others has been practised often in the name of the highest motives, however warped, but nothing invalidates and damns a creed from the roots like craven, despicable cowardice – above all, when that creed claims to embody the exact opposite. Fascism may be one way that cowards learn to live with themselves, but denial of the truth of your situation, to compensate and cover for your own weakness and fear, screams intellectual cowardice to accompany the general cowardice infecting every aspect of fascism.
Fascist fear begins in a weak or threatened identity. Identities are like assholes – everybody’s got one. And yet, everybody seems proud of their identity, to identify with it, far more than their asshole. They ground themselves on their identity when they would never ground themselves on their asshole, even though they sit on it all the time. They pride themselves on how distinct and unique their identity is, when fundamentally all identities are the same, just as all assholes are the same. They’re round. They shit. The same with identities.
One very fundamental reason, though, that humans attach such significance to identities is fear. The common identity is all the identity that many individuals have, their inheritance from the group. Truth be told, it’s all that we all have, only some of us inherit from a wider compass and more electively than others. Identity is the refuge from existential terror and doubt for most of us. Shared identity and the continuity of the group is the only escape for many from the horrible realization that one day you as an individual will die, and the equally horrible realization that you have no grounding in reality, no given order to follow, no certainty of what to do and how to be. And of course, the group as a whole suffers from the same terror and doubt, but seeks safety in numbers. Follow the traditional cycles of birth and death, marriages, confinements, and above all, funerals, and you have a communal shelter, a huddling place, to seek refuge from the naked fear of standing alone and self-aware against death and meaninglessness. Plus, practically, the group, the family, the community, is all that many of us have to support us and shield us from the day-to-day problems and perils of life. Exile, ostracism, was long seen in many cultures as the worst of punishments, equivalent to a death sentence.
Group identity is all about fear. The whole concept is shot through with fear, born out of fear. Fear of others, with a slightly different identity. Fear of the world beyond the huddling place. Fear of reality. Fear of solitude. Fear of responsibility, fear of autonomy, fear of freedom. Most people, perhaps all, derive their actual position towards freedom, responsibility, authority, etc. not from something like Hobbes’s state of nature, unless that’s one of their society’s prejudices, but in fact from basic tribal instincts little changed since prehistory. To the tribe, individual judgment, individual identity, individual achievement, count for nothing. The collective judgment of the tribe dictates values and social reality. The development of social institutions and specializations may have ramified and diversified this pattern, but they have not changed it at all. Social classes, codes of law, rulers and ruled, are all still the taboos and traditions of the tribe. Fear of change is prevalent among tribal communities. The tribe’s true educators and motors of development are not scepticism and dissent, but trade and war. Isolated tribes preserve their original traditions because they have been least exposed to these. As soon as you see any other people doing things differently, and have to deal with them, your whole ontology is called into question and the abyss of existential despair opens, because the tribe’s traditions and cult almost always have provided the ground of all being and all value. Foreign ways remind us of the foreignness of life; the stranger incarnates the strangeness of reality. We are always lost on any map that contains any other country – one great inducement to conquest.
All those fears are especially well developed in the fascist. External threats might terrorize many people into fascism, but the original fascist has far stronger internal fears to contend against – all the anxieties and insecurities and weak identity and self-worth that drive fanaticism and bigotry. The general fears and insecurities that drive the group huddling instinct in people as a whole are far more personal and far more fully developed in the fascist. A history of abuse, sexual inadequacy, hidden emotional scars, confusion over origins, all these and more can contribute to creating the flawed, fearful, inadequate, overcompensating, core personality of the basic fascist. And above all, as with the most stereotyped narcissistic behaviour, the fascist is afraid above all to confront the sources of their own weakness, fear and pain, and flees to totems of strength, integrity and wholeness – sometimes flees all the way to death with eyes wide shut. Hence the shrillness and hysteria of fascism, the characteristic notes of overcompensation and denial. Demagogues are the mirror image of the weak and cowardly, what any coward would like to be. Any tyranny is propped up by desperate overcompensation, not so much by the cowardice of the ruled as by the cowardice of the rulers.
Unfortunately for the fascist, though, group identity has no coherent, rational wholeness. Since no group identity is the product of a rational, articulate, structure, without internal contradictions, the fascist is driven by all the force of fear to embrace irrational, inarticulate, contradictory values to elevate the random accumulation of chance developments and local facts that make up a group identity into the invulnerable totem of strength. In his typology of Ur-Fascism, the very first feature Umberto Eco identifies is the cult of tradition. Features 2, 3, 4, and 5, and to a lesser extent, 10, 13, and 14, are all basically there just to support Feature 1. Rejection of modernism and the embrace of irrationalism; action for action’s sake to avoid thought; rejection of analytical criticism; hatred of the contradiction represented by the outsider; appeal to a savant elite as initiates of Tradition; disdain for parliaments and representative forums; Newspeak simplifications – all ways to sustain the cult of tradition by abandoning or attacking anything that calls it into question. And because tradition is a random mess of arbitrary facts brought together and handed down by history, so fascism is – or has to support – a random mess of arbitrary ideas. Fascism’s aggression, permanent state of tension, and death wish stems partly from the stress of sustaining its internal contradictions.
There’s a special, personal brand of fear that motivates the fascist intellectual. Fascist thinkers of all stripes follow a fairly common trajectory through doubt, disbelief, narcissistic retreat into themselves, and eventual re-emergence into fascism. Nihilistic fascists, those solitary and sensitive individuals who escape from the terrors of solipsism, scepticism, and existential despair by fetishising authority and unreason, worshipping tradition and the nation, are classic manifestations of this: Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Emil Cioran, Julius Evola, Knut Hamsun, Lucien Rebatet – and for modern successors overwhelmed by their own subjectivity, Michel Houellebecq and Karl Ove Knausgård. Houellebecq, one representative misanthrope, misogynist, and anti-rationalist, declares: “Good, evil, morality, sentiments? Pure ‘Victorian fictions.’ All that exists is egotism. Cold, intact, and radiant.”
Fascism is the totalitarianism of tradition: the past, with all its random incoherence, elevated to a totalitarian principle. It’s the squalling tantrum of a child told there is no Santa Clause, unnaturally prolonged into adulthood. It’s the perverse fetishism of an adult baby, Peter Pan pirate games with real swords. Naturally, it’s riddled with contradiction and confusion. Hence the appeal to the irrational, to permit all those inconsistent traditions and taboos to persist alongside each other without their incompatibilities tearing the whole edifice apart – and one major contributory factor to the incoherent aggression of fascism, as tensions and contradictions seek their release.
Fascism is not only irrationalism, it is ultimately anti-reality, the retreat of overburdened or fragile identities in the face of the complexities and responsibilities of modern adult life, the political equivalent of anorexia. As G.K. Chesterton wrote in Heretics, “Nietzsche’s aristocracy has about it all the sacredness that belongs to the weak. When he makes us feel that he cannot endure the innumerable faces, the incessant voices, the overpowering omnipresence which belongs to the mob, he will have the sympathy of anybody who has ever been sick on a steamer or tired in a crowded omnibus. Every man has hated mankind when he was less than a man. Every man has had humanity in his eyes like a blinding fog, humanity in his nostrils like a suffocating smell. But when Nietzsche has the incredible lack of humour and lack of imagination to ask us to believe that his aristocracy is an aristocracy of strong muscles or an aristocracy of strong wills, it is necessary to point out the truth. It is an aristocracy of weak nerves.”
And naturally, in such a complex and contradictory writer, Nietzsche said much the same thing himself. “I have found strength where one does not look for it: in simple, mild, and pleasant people, without the least desire to rule – and, conversely, the desire to rule has often appeared to me a sign of inward weakness: they fear their own slave soul and shroud it in a royal cloak (in the end, they still become the slaves of their followers, their fame, etc.) The powerful natures dominate, it is a necessity, they need not lift one finger” (Friedrich Nietzsche. Nachlass, Autumn 1880 6 ).
That fits exactly fascism’s historical pedigree, its emergence fully formed alongside aestheticism, Wagnerism, Decadence, and the retreat from industrial civilization – one more symptom of fin-de-siecle neurosis. And, as for fascism’s cult of adventure and pioneering colonialism, “Doubtless men flee from small environments into lands that are very deadly. But this is natural enough; for they are not fleeing from death. They are fleeing from life.” And Chesterton on the genesis of fascism in modern societies: “A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises.”
>Fighting fascism becomes much easier when you realize that your opponents are cowards – just like all bullies. And cowardice may often drive people into acts of hysterical courage, or hysterical brutality, but a desperate rearguard action or suicidal sacrifice to avoid confronting truth and reality is not much to admire, when inner pain and inner fear drives the adult child. Never be afraid to take up arms against the greatest, most complete cowards humanity has ever produced.[Top]
After the news that the Oxford Literary Festival has finally decided to start paying authors for their participation, I don’t think anyone will mind me sharing Susan Hill‘s blog post (archived from 2008, but nothing much has changed), on how much money the organizers of literary festivals can make. No disrespect intended for those festivals that share some of this lucre with participating authors, but for the rest, now read on:
Psst. wanna earn a few bob ? Then start a Literary Festival. It`s one of the best kept secrets in the world – litfests make a lorra lorra money for those who run them. Let us exclude Councils who start them in order to give their towns and cities a higher profile and who want to show off the place a bit and up the visitor numbers. No, it is the privately run smaller Litfests which are a licence to print money. Recently I happened to talk to 2 people who had been involved in them. One runs hers from her own large stately home, the other has just started one from a small but affluent and literate village. Why do you think someone like Charles Spencer runs a litfest ? Because it makes money of course.
Here is how it goes. If you own the venue, you`ve a head start since you don`t have to pay hire charges. If you offer accomodation, as a perk to the writers, of course you have pay your cleaning and housekeeping staff a bit more. But after that you`re laughing. But surely, you have to pay your helpers, all those people who run the office, move chairs about and fetch authors from the station. Oh no you don`t, you have students, arts graduates and other people who want to mingle with the Famous Authors. You don`t have to pay them anything, except maybe with a free lunch, because they`re absolutely queuing up to do it, it looks good on their CVs. They would pay YOU. for the privilege of helping.
Next, you ring and e-mail round all the publishers and ask what Top Names they have on the road flogging a new book. It is the Top Names who are going to make you most of your money. You can charge £15 – £20 a head for Sebastian Faulks or Ian McEwan easily and you put them in the Main Hall. That holds 500, with 50 standee students at a fiver each, at the back These are the authors who really bring in the punters and with luck, those punters will then also book up for the filler-authors. These are the lesser-known or mid-list or obscure-subject writers who are thrilled to be asked to do a lit fest. Like the Free Helpers, they would pay you to come. The only downside is that have to put them in the Library which only holds 30 and you can`t charge more than a fiver or seven fifty. Still, that`s an hour, half an hour for the turn-round, four filler-authors a day minimum…it starts to add up doesn`t it ?
The publishers pay the travel and accomodation expenses of the authors so no money for you to spend there. If you do not have room /inclination for them to stay in your Stately home, you book them into local hotels and B and Bs.The publishers pay but you, the organiser, can ask for a cut from the hotelier for filling their rooms for a few nights. They`ll give you 10% easily, maybe more.
So what else is to pay for, out of the ticket money that is now pouring in ? Office expenses and advertising/marketing. But you ask the publishers to help with that. You also ask the Arts Council to give you money. After a year or two you ask them for some more because your festival is successful so you want / need to expand your offices. The AC will probably give you a nice chunk of dosh for this, maybe as much as 100K, with which you do indeed move your office into the restored Stable Block or Garage. But as you own both, and the house, you are increasing the value of your own property very considerably, at someone else`s expense.The public`s actually but never mind a little detail like that. Now also comes the moment to try and get major Sponsorship from a national newspaper – if you can`t manage it because they are all already sponsoring your rivals, at least a local chain of papers might cough up. This is all Marketing and Advertising and PR for them so they write it off anyway. So that`s your expenses sorted. The rest is pure profit – but when people start making money, naturally and understandably they want to make more. Of course, selling the books ! Now you either set up your own bookstall and take all the profits, or you generously invite a local bookseller to take the franchise. This is a whole lot less hassle for you and you ask him for 20% of the profits, settle for 15% – plus a Site Rental Fee in advance.
And while you are at it, you would love a load of free books wouldn`t you ? OK, first write to every major publisher saying you are running A Lit fest and asking to be put on all their lists for Review and Publicity copies. That`ll get you a very nice load of re-saleable books per week. (Don`t forget to register as an Amazon /ebay powerseller.) In addition to this, you ask the publisher of every author coming to talk to send you 6 free copies of their book. Why do you need 6 ? You don`t, stupid, you may need one for an interviewer of the author to read, but the publisher won`t ask, they`ll just bung the 6 along and the re-sale of those all adds to your amazon income. If you don`t want the bother of amazon, try to find a second hand dealer or private library supplier who will drive down, pick everything up, and give you a nice cheque – saves all those jiffy bags and running to the post.
If you decide to launch out into catering for the punters, then make sure you take a percentage of every sandwich and cup of tea plus the usual Site Rental lump sum. They charge a fiver a sandwich at these things you know. You do the math.
And of course do not forget the highlight of your Festival, the Grand Literary Lunch. Make this exclusive. Only 150 tickets, at £45 a ticket. ( £60 if you can get Alan Titchmarsh as the Speaker.) Outside caterers will do this for £20 a head. But you make a good deal from the outset that you will be doing the drinks separately. This is one of the best earners of the week. Wholesale mid-price wine (don`t serve gut-rot, no one will come back next year), trainees from the local catering college to serve it -and give an especially warm welcome to the non-drinkers, because the mark-up on elderflower presse is astronomical.
In addition to a very nice profit all round, your bonus reward is the warm-glow of knowng that you are Supporting the Arts, Culture, the Book Trade and the Local Tourist Economy. And remember, the people who go to litfests are extremely nice and law-abiding ,as well as being ones with disposable income to spend on their chosen hobby of Going to Litfests and paying through the nose for it. If you ran a pop music festival you might pack in thousands and charge the earth but look at how much mayhem they cause. It would take you a month to clear up, and would more than likely involve the police and the Public Health Officials. Litfest people are quiet, polite, clean, drug-free and they pick up their own litter and take it home with them in plastic bags.
What are you waiting for ?
Power is the most perverted passion of all, far beyond molestation or bestiality. Remember that every time you look at a political figure. More twisted, more insidious, more pervasive, more far-reaching, more damaging, more depraved. Power does not corrupt: power is corrupt. Because the moment we upset the natural balance of power between ourselves, and give any one person power over any other, we unleash their passions as far as that power will allow. And the perverted power-mongers always want more.
Power is perversion. Power is perverse. Yes, you need power to do anything to anyone, or anything at all. We each have our own natural will power. Exactly how strong or weak, no one can measure, certainly not science. Without measurement, for accuracy as well as fairness, we might as well assume that it’s equal. Muscle power, brain power, stamina, health, height, luck, everything that constitutes power at any one time, are all likely to naturally even out in the end. But to take away or reduce someone else’s own natural will power, and autonomy, to take power over them, is already unnatural, a distortion of the natural order. It twists things out of true. No wonder perverts love to do it. And the more perverted they are, the more power they want to acquire.
Sadistic abuses are mostly about power first, and any satisfaction after. The specific satisfaction is a turn-on purely because it’s a manifestation of power, whether power over someone smaller, weaker, or less mature, or power to hurt and maim. What the abuser wants ultimately is power itself – the supposed fulfillment is an afterthought. And the purest embodiment of that perversion is the sociopath, without empathy or affect. In their dead-eyed, empty lives, the only passion is power, the basic volitional impulse devoid of any object. All other emotions are atrophied or absent. They have no fellow-feeling because they have no feelings, no real human being. Power is all they can feel. So they pursue it single-mindedly, in any guise, regardless of any cost or consequence, because nothing else can affect them. All the rest of us can do is guard against that, constantly.
Knowing this, what will happen, why does anyone voluntarily give up their own share of power, to be abused? Usually, identification with anyone they see as stronger. It’s an easy cop-out for the weak, the foolhardy, the fearful, the unstable and vulnerable identity. As a slave, you gain a protector. As a clan chattel, you gain a totem. Fear and incoherence feed the perversion of power. The power-monger and the powerless are natural allies, so if you’d rather keep your own power, allow others theirs.
We are all perverts. Potentially if not actually. Which is why we all need a framework of negative checks and balances to keep our wills in check. Negative Golden Rule. The power we give up collectively is the forfeit we pay to check the perverted abuse of power over us. And as soon as that power is taken out of balance, the cycle of abuse begins again. None of us have any right to have power over any other, but we strike the balance as the cost of saving ourselves. We share power to check each other. Which power-mongers can’t bear. And if they’re not kept in check, the perverts shall inherit the earth.
The influence of Thomas Ligotti stalks large across contemporary North American horror and dark fiction, as Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft once did and mostly still do. Jon Padgett is not slow to acknowledge his debt “to my friend and mentor, Thomas Ligotti, without whom this book would not exist.” Given that tribute, and the book’s focus on ventriloquist’s dummies, straight from the same toybox as Ligotti’s favourite emblems of puppets and dolls, a reader could be forgiven expecting a pastiche of Ligottiesque themes, like the Yog-sothothery that made so many careers in the immediate wake of the Lovecraftian revival. But how wrong they would be.
For one thing, The Secret of Ventriloquism contains exquisitely calculated prose chiseled sharply enough to cut off any suspicion of second-hand knockoffs. As an opener, for instance, “The Mindfulness of Horror Practice” is a short, simple, chilling parody of the kind of induction you might encounter in any tacky wellness session, retooled to evoke icy metaphysical sickness. “Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown” is the kind of boy’s own story that Stephen King could be proud of – finishing with one of the best five-word endings I’ve read in recent horror fiction. “The Indoor Swamp” is a sort of ghost-train horror ride guide that, once again, picks up all kinds of nightmarish existential dimensions along the way. And for another thing, as all that should suggest, Padgett has many more than one string to his bow, or manner to his mummery. There’s quite enough variety of tone, setting, and focus here to surprise and disconcert any reader, and leave preconceived expectations flopping and gasping in the cold black mud of Padgett’s imagination.
Despite the variety, there’s also some conspicuous continuity between stories, especially those directly concerning “The Secret of Ventriloquism,” which itself is a one-act play towards the end of the book. “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism” and “The Infusorium” both deal with the same theme, but in utterly different ways – the latter a sometimes brutal noirish ride through Padgett’s iconic hell-on-earth of Dunnstown. Then there are the awful origami dreams of, well, “Origami Dreams,” the grotesque affliction of “Organ Void,” the cold songs of Thin Mountain, and so on. And on. On far enough to outdistance any conceivable accusation of derivative work. Padgett is a chilling master in his own right. You’d be a dummy not to read him…[Top]
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.[Top]
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]