Filed under: Interviews
Sarah-Jane Stratford is a horror and fantasy writer with a difference.
Her novel ‘The Midnight Garden’, subtitled ’a Millennial novel’, is about vampires who have lived 1,000 years. They are called upon to fight Hitler’s Third Reich. The paperback comes out in the US on 28th September.
Sarah-Jane studied medieval history at the University of York in England, where she wrote a thesis about women in the manorial court system which gave her an appreciation for the modern era. Although she loves the UK she now lives in New York City.
She has also written plays and screenplays, and her script ‘The Tale Of The Torturer’s Daughter’ placed her in several contests and got her an agent.
She is a lover of theatre and is currently working on two stage plays as well as writing the next set of millennial adventures.
She met me at The Slaughterhouse, we picked out a bottle of Passac-Leognan, then we spoke about vampires and history.
Do you think that romance always needs a dark flower at its heart?
Absolutely. Specifically, the Amorphophallus titanum, aka the “carrion flower,” which smells like decomposing flesh. And the garden doesn’t get weeded as often as it should. I may be carrying this metaphor a bit too far. Or possibly not far enough?
Tell us about the influence of medieval history on your writing.
While my degree is in medieval history, I would say that my influence comes from a much wider historical scope. History, along with mythology, is the original source of our stories. For me, whether I’m writing something serious or funny, with or without a fantasy element, I almost always turn to the past as a way of limning the present. History, if we pay attention, has to power to inform us as much about ourselves as about our forebears, recent or distant. To take a pop-cultural example, television’s ‘Mad Men,’ about the world of advertising in 1960s New York, has a comparatively small but devoted fan base and inspires discussion in a wide variety of milieu – referenced in op-ed pieces, magazine articles, and academic papers; as well as, of course, advertising. The accuracy of the show’s history shapes the drama and the characters. It also illuminates aspects of ourselves. History, in whatever guise, creates a prism through which to see both past and present with a clarity that can – and sometimes should be – disquieting but also revelatory.
So I set my personal writing bar kinda low.
In truth, my main service is always to the characters and their journeys. And that is where my knowledge, understanding, and love of history come to bear the most powerfully during the writing process. I could in no way pretend to tell a true story about a character in a given period if I did not know the true history. Or rather, I could pretend, but everyone would know it and would – rightly – give me a lot of grief for it. So history helps me get at the truth.
And then, perhaps sounding like a vampire myself, it gives me a lot of material from which to pilfer. It is tremendous fun to take a bit of history and really turn it on its head. I’m not sure what any of my former professors would say about it – I’ve issued a preemptive apology – but I definitely have a very jolly time.
What do vampires represent in your fiction and is their immortality a way of animating history?
Ah-ha, you’ve uncovered my secret! Like many (possibly insane) historians, I’ve fantasized about either a TARDIS or similar means by which I could just go and investigate certain chapters of history first-hand. Preferably without picking up strange diseases. There is something of a piquant appeal in the notion of living repositories of history, right here, who could tell us honest, first-hand accounts of historical events – if only we knew how to access them. Conversely, the vampires are sometimes frustrated by their inability to acquaint the humans with finer points of history – namely, where present activity is repeating steps that lead to catastrophe. The vampires can participate in the human world to great extent, but there is always a distinct, if invisible, veil between the two. If it’s to be penetrated, both sides must be open to the possibility.
Enchanted as I am with the concept of “living” history in the shape of vampires, it’s most crucial to me that they are real characters. While they are not human and the pace of their lives moves differently from humans, they nonetheless have many human attributes. It’s these attributes that guide them through the story. And yet, as non-humans, I find it fascinating to juxtapose them against inhumanity. For me, locating vampires in the midst of World War II creates a prism through which to contemplate the nature of evil, and what it means to be truly “human.”
Tell us about your time in LA writing screenplays.
AKA: my lost wilderness. I grew up in LA, and it was not my intention to return, but I surprised myself by making inroads in the film world – surprised because I am at heart a theatre and book person – and wanted to pursue that. I won some contests, got an agent, had a lot of meetings – it seemed to be happening and I didn’t want to question it. Moreover, I didn’t want to question how well the writing was going. I really loved writing screenplays – it’s so disciplined. I’d never worked in such a way, balancing technique and creativity and never losing sight of either. Which is to say, I’d been doing it wrong before, but that’s fine. I was fast, but also efficient. I loved dialogue, but learned not to let it overwhelm a scene. Despite having been writing since childhood, taking classes, and being in writers groups, it was only here when I learned how to embrace the rewrite process and be brutal about cutting anything that wasn’t working – even if I loved it. I soon found that what I wrote to replace the excised text was better because it served the story more completely. This may all be almost revoltingly obvious, but it’s one thing to realize all that in a seminar situation and another when you are angling for a job. Nothing quite like raising stakes to get you on your game.
Ultimately, my theatre-and-book loving heart told me I’d wandered in the wilderness far too long and so I moved to New York – the right thing to do, since within a year of so doing, I’d sold my first book. However, the time spent in LA was not for naught. My former agent, who is now a producer/manager, helped me get my literary agent. Several of the people I knew in the film and TV industry were able to help me in a variety of ways on the road to publication. They always tell you how crucial it is to maintain contacts and not burn bridges – turns out, they’re right.
What do you think vampires represent to our psyches and in what ways is that tied up with their appeal?
Vampires have classically been a representation of human darkness, if not outright evil. They appear human, but are without souls. They live in darkness. At best, because of their animated corpse state, they might be considered simply shadows of a self, but nonetheless malignant.
Being human, that which frightens us also fascinates us. The vampire myth endures because we want to see what lies in the shadow realm. Darkness is foreboding, but tempting. After all, it’s in darkness that dreams occur. Possibly, if we take a step into darkness and survive, we’ll better know ourselves.
That’s in part the idea I had in creating my own vampires – the idea that darkness has the power to illuminate if you’re willing and open to the possibilities. Some of my inspiration is from medieval ideas of the self – the concentric circles thereof. The individual was located within a house and the circles moved out to village, to farm, to forest and then beyond. The forest, as we know from fairy tales, is not a place to venture lightly – and best avoided altogether. It’s dark and one can get lost – forever. One of the ways in which a man must prove himself before he could become a knight was to venture into the forest alone and triumphantly return. You are stronger for having survived the darkness.
The forest is also a place of romance. But it is a dangerous romance, because of all you cannot see. I think a strong appeal of vampires, whether of the classic pure evil variety or those that are more complex and have something that might yet be called humanity about them, is that they are sensual. Dark ages mythology would have us fear the sensual, but we nonetheless wish to explore it.
It’s worth noting too, I think, that in medieval plays, the representation of evil was usually funny. Part of this reflects the idea that to laugh at one’s enemy renders that enemy less potent. It also meant you paid close attention to what evil was doing – perhaps you might envy the devil’s freedom to joke, be rude, be sexual. You could enjoy time with evil, but at play’s end, good was triumphant. These were religious pieces, but they had the same effect as a Greek play – that of catharsis. Our relationship to vampires is an outgrowth of this – we can enjoy them, envy their power, their eternal life when they seem to enjoy it – but we ultimately turn away from the temptations of our darkest selves to live a bit more in the light.
In the modern era, this isn’t religious, but absolutely humanist. We have accepted and even embrace sensuality, so now I think the more specific fascination with vampires is their ability to walk on the edge. The dark remains enticing, as does the notion of this romantic eternity. We know we’re mortal, we know youth fades – so much harder to accept in a youth-driven culture – we know that while we can let loose, we can’t run wild always. The idea of those who can, therefore, will always burn bright. The vampire is in some ways the beast within – and I’ll end by saying that I think it’s an open question as to just how “beastly” that beast is.
You love the theatre and mention Shakespeare as one of your favourite writers. Do you think his enduring appeal lies not just in his poetry but in his insights into the extremes of good and evil as they exist within human nature?
But you probably want me to elaborate. Put most simply, Shakespeare told the truth. The truth about the entire spectrum of who we are as humans, and all of which we are capable. I think that it’s less about the extremes he highlights and much more about the nuances he illuminates that renders him so universal and immediate and relevant, even all these years later. We can see the whole of ourselves in his plays.
That’s part of why my vampire characters are so besotted with Shakespeare. While they remember their humanity and are, of course, keen observers thereof, they find in the plays exquisite delineations of that to which they are so closely bound and yet are so irrevocably not. They have feelings, they can love, but they don’t have souls – and so here is laid bare the human soul for them to truly know.
It’s complex, and I must say I love the contradictions. The vampires love the human world – theatre, art, music, science, literature, mathematics – love and need it. Not just for physical sustenance, but so much more. They love so much in humanity, and yet they kill. But they do condemn war – not merely because it cuts into their food supply, but because they know that humans have a choice. One group does not have to wreak havoc upon the other. Humans don’t need the blood of other humans to survive. We have the capacity to be above such violence, and yet we keep unleashing it.
Which both the vampires and Shakespeare understand, even if they don’t accept it. There is a heartbreaking inevitability about some of our actions. There always has to be the hope, however, that in studying these contradictions of ourselves, we come to comprehend it and from comprehension, we come to find ways to be more of our best selves, as we know exists, and rise above our worst selves, though knowing that exists as well. I think in telling the truth of ourselves, Shakespeare argues that we must strive to be our whole selves, even with our flaws. We are a labor that is worth the effort, even when we fail.
And the poetry is lovely too.
Do you think that at the heart of the vampire myth is a sense of tragedy?
I really think it depends upon your perspective. Someone who was human dies and loses their soul, which is a terrible tragedy. They are then forced to literally prey upon other humans to maintain their unnatural life, which is both tragic and ghastly. Youthful innocence is cut down in its prime, for no reason than to feed the living dead.
Although soulless, vampires need not be void of awareness, and can even be conflicted about the parameters of their existence. I was interested in exploring layers – the idea that they could enjoy their life not because they took pleasure in their evil, but because there were genuine joys to be had in their world. Light in the darkness. In my view, that light is love. While much of the focus is on the love between attached vampires, it can also be the love of friends, or of art. But it’s this that enables you to have a long life, and perhaps grow less monstrous. My vampire characters are mindful about choosing their prey – they stick to the demimonde and anyone whom they think won’t be missed. It’s cynical, but effective. When they find love, the method of maintaining life is rendered unimportant. They have to eat, of course, but it’s the least of their pursuits.
I was also interested in the idea that there might be an element of personal freedom in the vampire world greater than that they knew as humans. That stems in part from the medieval portrayal of the devil, as mentioned earlier, but I wanted to go further. A human woman in ancient Britain would have few or no resources for education, but as a vampire, the world of books is open to her. Jews and homosexuals, persecuted as humans, find acceptance amongst vampires – although on entering the world, they not so much relinquish religion as their faith relinquishes them. They are still part of a group hated and feared by humans, of course, but now they have the advantage of supernatural strength and other abilities, so they are not easily targeted. It’s a kind of liberation, even though they are consigned to darkness. They learn how to see in the dark – and find a lot to see.
Personally, I consider death to be less of a tragedy than a life lived without love or happiness. Overall, the vampires agree.
Do you think that ultimately you are a romantic writer?
Well, I certainly am a hopeless romantic. With all appropriate emphasis therein. But I prefer to eschew labels. If I start labeling myself, then next I might start pigeonholing myself and then where will I be? I’m a writer, full stop. This novel has a powerful romance at its heart, but it’s also historical, fantasy, and a thriller. I’m working on a play that is a satire about censorship and sedition. I’m planning a novel about World War I espionage and theatre, as well as one about a medieval woman’s quest to restore her family’s name and honor in the midst of fighting demons and the plague. And somewhere in there is going to be a jolly comedy or two as well. I like to be open to all stories and write the characters who come to me.
To be honest, I had never expected to write a vampire story. It was very different from everything I had written before. I was more influenced by ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ than I’d thought and was so fascinated by the possibilities inherent in locating vampires in World War II, I put aside everything else and ran with it. Rightly so, as it turns out. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s when characters speak to you that strongly, you do well to listen.
I do think, though, that there is a stronger common thread in all the various projects on which I’m working than might be immediately evident. I tend to prefer historical settings – the past gives us so much about the present. I also like the clothes. I’m interested in strong characters trying to navigate complex situations, whether that’s defeating an enemy or falling in love. My goal is always to tell their stories as completely as I can.
And of course sometimes, I just want to go a bit mad and have some fun.
Given the impact of feminism in the modern era, do you think as a medieval historian, that if modern men behaved as Castiglione recommended in his book ‘The Courtier’, it would work nowadays?
I think the first thing that must be pointed out is that men did *not* behave as Castiglione advocated – the book is instructional but also idealistic. Chretien de Troyes was romanticizing the world of the knighthood, not documenting it. Both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace are considered as writing mythology, not history. The reality of behavior in so far as love and marriage are concerned (and the two did not coincide as often as one would like), was far less romantic.
It should also be pointed out that “courtly love,” to the extent it existed beyond the poetry by which we know it, took place expressly outside of marriage. Marriage, particularly for anyone attached to a royal court, had nothing to do with love. While some couples did end up loving each other, it was usually by luck. The marriage of Edward III and Philippa of Hainult was widely documented as a happy one, but he still took a mistress. Courtly love may have had a sexual aspect, although this would have been very dangerous for the woman, but is generally viewed as aspirational for all. It’s a charming idea – giving poor knights a chance to rise by their virtue and women in loveless marriages a chance to enjoy admiration.
While there have been those quick to criticize feminists for prompting a coarsening of behavior and manners – criticism women have endured since at least the nineteenth century – I think this comes from those who would idealize and romanticize history, rather than actually know it. The institutional inequality of women, much the same as that of other minorities, created much damage. In the middle ages, a man might beat his wife half to death and, if punished, was usually just levied a small fine. Eleanor of Aquitaine was Queen of England and powerful in her own right, but Henry II still had the power to imprison her. We swoon over the romances as portrayed in the novels of Jane Austen, but must bear in mind that she was often being highly satirical of her social sphere. While she clearly saw the best marriages as those where the couple are truly in love and have as the basis for that love an equality of emotion and intellectual capacity, if not education, there is no question but that the husband is very much the head of the household and the superior. The wife may be a partner to him, but she is always his dependent.
More recently, as we’ve just marked 90 years of women’s voting rights in the States, we are reminded that one of the arguments against equal suffrage was that a married woman did not have legal standing of her own – her husband represented her. And if I may bring up ‘Mad Men’ again, whilst of course it’s fictional, it’s still an accurate portrayal of behavior and women’s standing and options. A man might have courted a woman with lovely manners (which didn’t tend to display themselves so much after the honeymoon), but neither of them were conditioned to think of themselves as equals.
I’m of the opinion that lovely manners and equality needn’t be mutually exclusive. To the extent society has allowed the teaching of manners and expectation of polite behavior to go by the wayside has been to its detriment. But to blame feminism for as much is, at best, inaccurate. I’m a strong, proud feminist, but I value manners too. I and all the women – and men – I know want to be treated with respect and consideration. Being of a literary and theatrical bent, I also love when someone sings to me, and would be thrilled with a poem. Heck, I even love to cook and wear slut-tastic heels – occasionally at the same time. Which I regard as highly deserving of poetry! Bottom line: equality is erotic and manners are hot. Let’s all get on that, people!
Do you think that for very different reasons to those intrinsic within the history of modern gender liberation, many women in the West are enjoying loveless marriages, and if so why?
Good grief, I hope not! What on earth would be the point? I suppose there are very odd ducks of both genders who “enjoy” loveless marriages, and far be it from me to judge if they’ve found something that works for them. That sort of arrangement is referenced in Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’ – “A husband on a low light, that’s what they want, these supposedly unsuspecting wives, the man’s lukewarm attentions just what they married them for.” Which used to be a standard arrangement for both men and women who had few other options if they wanted to be respectable or safe – especially if they were gay. The whole point of fighting for gender equality – and now marriage equality – is so that we’re all free to choose the lives that make us happy. I think what most humans want, wherever they are in the world, is some measure of happiness, peace, and love. I reference that in the book, actually. The individual can define as much for themselves. I’m hardly being original – there’s a reason Thomas Jefferson included “and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, and John Locke before him, were being quite radical. We sometimes forget that Enlightenment thinking remade the Western world. The very notion of all humans, no matter their social stratum, being endowed with unalienable rights, and one of these being the right to pursue their personal notion of happiness, had never before been part of a common dialogue and was certainly not the part of any national document. This was part of the shot heard round the world, I think, because it’s this idea of individual human rights that have prompted people to struggle against oppression of all kind.
On a broadly practical level, loveless marriages are a major feature of history. Marriage for most people was conducted strictly as a business arrangement. If you were royal, there were crucial political factors to consider. This was why those who could sought at least an idea of romance elsewhere. Even by Jane Austen’s time, when more people could marry for love, practicality was still an issue. In ‘Pride & Prejudice,’ Charlotte Lucas marries the pompous ass Mr. Collins because it’s the only way she can gain a measure of independence. She knows full well she is entering into a loveless match but explains that she’s not romantic and “happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.” While this says a great deal about her as a character, it says just as much about the realities of the time period, especially for women. Later, at the height of the Victorian era, studies suggest that there were four prostitutes for every man in London. This is also the time when love and the sanctity of marriage and children begins to prevail in British and American common philosophy, but single men were not enough to keep those prostitutes in business, so however much some husbands were extolling the virtues of home and motherhood, their money was definitely somewhere other than their mouths.
What liberation movements – economic, as well as social and political – have accomplished is giving women the ability to leave such unsatisfactory arrangements without open stigma or the risk of total poverty. I rejoice to say that I don’t know anyone who feels they must enter into, let alone stay, in a loveless situation because there are no other options. That can often be the case in circumstances *without* liberation movements, but not in places where women have equal rights and protection under the law.
I do think that relationships can be complicated, to say the least. I think a lot of people don’t recognize that marriage, or just long-term exclusivity, requires effort. There are those who say that when it’s right it’s all easy, but my own opinion is that it’s not so much that it’s easy but rather that it’s work you both enjoy and thus it feels easy. There’s a reason why so many plays, books, and movies end when the couple agrees to be together, whether we see a wedding or not. Once you shift into the business of being together, it’s different. Different in a better way, when it’s a real commitment and both people are completely in the room, but that place of being more serious and really forging a life together is just that – serious. Even Shakespeare doesn’t showcase that many married couples. The Macbeths are certainly a strong, loving couple, but perhaps not good role models. Gertrude and Claudius love each other, but…yeah. Both Othello and Desdemona and Leontes and Hermione were happy couples until in each case the husband turned into a lunatic douchebag. And Adriana and Antipholus of Ephesus need to kickstart their romance to remember how happy they are.
Honestly, despite how deep some of the cynicism can run, I think the modern artist who’s best delineated the hard truths about living lives together is Stephen Sondheim, another of my artistic heroes. His musicals are brilliant, but they’re only “light” in the sense of being illuminating. The lead character in ‘Company,’ who is so frightened of commitment, at last sings about what that means:
“Someone to need you too much,
Someone to know you too well,
Someone to pull you up short
And put you through hell.
Someone you have to let in,
Someone whose feelings you spare,
Someone who, like it or not,
Will want you to share
A little, a lot.”
Among other things – and it’s right that the song is called “Being Alive.”
Which is a tad ironic when I reconsider my vampires in that frame. The love between Brigit and Eamon in ‘The Midnight Guardian,’ is deeply romantic and stays strong even over many centuries. Like swans, when they find the right partner, they mate for life. It’s been suggested that I depicted their love as too idealistic, without showing the natural ups and downs they would have, but although they can love with the intensity and depth of humans, they are not human and that does make a difference. They don’t have to worry about much in the way of life’s business. They don’t get sick, they don’t age – they can even still fit into the same clothes they wore when they met, and that was in the 12th century.
Still, it’s love that can give them so much strength and longevity – “gives to every power a double power” – and that’s a big part of what inspired me. It’s the candle they light instead of cursing the darkness. And that is some happiness worth the pursuit.
‘Midnight Guardian’ will be available in November in the UK. Click here to pre-order at amazon.co.uk.
Follow Sarah-Jane Stratford on Twitter at twitter.com/stratfordsj
Filed under: Interviews
Pamila Payne is a noir horror writer, and she is more than that. She is an original voice conducting an ongoing narrative search in the darkness.
For fifteen years she’s been living with a group of dead guys at the Bella Vista Motel. She acts as a channel for their voices.
Her writing explores the themes that lie at the core of horror. She inhabits the twilight where the edges of reality blur.
I invited her to The Slaughterhouse and she accepted.
We spoke about ghosts and otherness.
Scroll to the end of the interview for more links to Pamila’s work.
In what ways do you think a person may be haunted in their lives?
Human beings are haunted by their impending death. Every one of us.
We are all so temporary, but our minds seek the illusion of permanence to overcome the horror of that truth. Happy people have an above average ability to forget.
Haunting is the imposition of memory.
To remember an experience or a person without consciously seeking that data in our minds can be a kind of haunting. Especially if there is much emotion attached. The image of a face comes unbidden, the sound of a voice, the smell of skin. In truth, we are only alive one moment at a time. Memories can only come from the past. We link to ghosts. There are ghost versions of ourselves in the minds of others. Memories are synaptic cobwebs brushing our faces.
Regret is the wailing banshee of memory.
A person can be haunted more deeply by feeling they should have done something differently, or made the attempt, or spoken from the heart, or just shut the hell up and waited for the moment to pass, than by any non corporeal entity.
If we love someone, the desire to be connected to them doesn’t go away with absence. They come into our minds, freely, no invitation needed. If you can totally forget someone you thought you once loved, chances are, it was a strong case of like.
Artists are mind wombs.
Fictional characters are a unique sort of ghost. They pass out into the material world through one human mind, like a birth. And then, if they are lucky and compelling, they come back into countless other human minds and become known. They develop into real people in the sense that they are known, their stories and their personalities are known.
At some point, all of us become memories. So who is real? Does a person who possesses a temporary body for a finite lifetime have an advantage over a person who is known by thousands, maybe even millions, and will live for as long as people can call their image to mind? I think real is all relative.
We are beings made of will.
If you look at a dead body, especially if it was someone you knew, it’s hard to believe the thing that lies there was ever a person. The reason people so often remark that a corpse looks like a poorly rendered wax dummy version of the person they knew is that very little of what makes us who we are has to do with the meat body we inhabit. The spirit animates matter.
Look at that dead body again. Reverse engineer it. Imagine what kind of force it would take to make that thing a person again. Imagine what kind of force it took to make that thing a person, ever. It’s not just a matter of physical function, the machinery can be running, but once the spirit is gone, the person ceases to live inside the body. If you see a body on life support it’s very much the same as looking at a corpse, except they are warm and pliable.
Unless the spirit is still there. Unless the person inside still somehow managed to retain the will to live inside their injured body. Rare, but it happens. And that’s my point, it is the will of the spirit to inhabit our bodies that makes us go on being who we are. Elderly people who have reached advanced age with the good fortune to posses healthy, functional brains can burn more brightly with personality than they did in their youth, because the body fades back and ceases to distract from the spirit behind the eyes. The strength of will animates matter that in the end is no better or worse than tree trunks or any other collection of cells.
I find it impossible to believe that something strong enough to animate a body simply ceases to exist once it leaves. I don’t have religious ideas about where the soul goes, but I believe it exists as a specific entity. If the spirit is strong enough to animate a human body, surely it can come back to whisper in our ears.
Do you believe ‘Rebecca’ is an illustration of what you are talking about and do you think love and all we mean by love invokes haunting?
I do think Rebecca is an illustration of the haunting power of love, but not in the usual romantic sense. The person most haunted by the love she felt for Rebecca is Mrs. Danvers. She is the one who can’t let go and for whom the memory of Rebecca is a painful spectre, but not in any supernatural sense.
Rebecca is not a ghost story. It’s a story of psychological and emotional torment. Each of the main characters are tormented by their own thoughts, fears and feelings, and in turn torment others, willingly in the case of Mrs. Danvers, unwillingly in the case of Maxim de Winter.
The second Mrs. de Winter, our poor dear heroine narrator with no first name, torments herself as much or more than she is tormented by Mrs. Danvers and her mostly unaware husband. Aside from her horrible sense of inferiority to Rebecca, our narrator suffers from an exquisite over awareness of her surroundings, her feelings, and interior thoughts. Her senses, self consciousness and memory are fine tuned to the point of agony. Her imagination verges on channeling. I have always identified very deeply with that character.
Nothing supernatural happens in the book or Hitchcock’s film. I love Hitchcock, but the film is not much more than the Cliff Notes version of the book, with the salient points mashed up to make for good popcorn eating. The unabridged audiobook read by Anna Massey is fantastic, by the way.
But… I believe what you were really asking was, is this how I meant to say love haunts?
Well, yes. And no.
Love and all we mean by it is a very broad subject. I think the very act of loving someone creates an opening in the psyche for the loved one to come in that we lose control over. It doesn’t have to be romantic love, it can be love for a friend, a child, even animals for some people. Nor does it have to be requited love. The oneway road can be quite treacherous.
Another thing that I find interesting speaking about the novel Rebecca is that Manderley, the mansion in the story, though not a traditionally haunted house, is as much a character as any of the people. It is also being held in thrall to the memory of its mistress. There are parallels to my own stories in the sense that the Bella Vista motel is very much an active character, though in my case, there are supernatural elements.
It is safe to assume that Maxim and his second wife will be haunted by Manderley for the rest of their lives and makes the point that it is more than possible to be haunted by the memory of places, too.
Do you see Bella Vista as a physical map of subconscious forces?
Yes. I look at it several ways. The Bella Vista motel is a physical form where the subconscious compulsions, memories and spirits of the people who live and die there attach and embed. It is like a coral reef. As the psychic debris pile up, the physical place becomes more spiritually and emotionally treacherous, dangerously easy to get lost in, to become trapped.
Bella Vista is also a character, a kind of mind that experiences and replays trauma, a personality that feeds off of drama. As a character, Bella Vista is a playful sociopath.
The motel is also a gateway to self discovery. Journeying to one’s dark places is dangerous, but not impossible to return from stronger and wiser. Subconscious forces are real and powerful. Going through life without shining a light down there is much the same as trying to walk across a dark room filled with an unknown number of snakes. You might make it across the floor to the bathroom in the middle of the night without stepping on one… but not being able to see them doesn’t mean they won’t rear up and bite you. Of course, some people have more snakes on their floors than others. Some of us build terrariums.
Do you believe that states of possession exist and if so how would you define one?
I believe that states of possession exist on many levels. That is a very deep subject and it’s a good thing that you limited me to one definition, because I could go on and on about it.
As a writer, I know I sometimes become possessed by my fictional characters. I’m not a total believer in the notion that our characters are nothing more than aspects of ourselves.
Certainly, that is true to an extent, more so for some than others—people who “write what they know,” as the saying goes and are basically reproducing their friends and family, or rewriting their childhood. And I don’t say that with any derision, there are deeply affecting and interesting stories created that way. It’s also true that creation is a function of imagination. The brain is a wonderful model builder and can pull elements from many sources.
Some of what I write comes up from my basement, out of my imagination and is all me. But some of it just isn’t. I feel my characters moving around in my brain quite apart from myself sometimes. It can be awkward. A lot of my characters are male. Not very nice males. When I spoke of a mind womb earlier, I meant that we share space in our minds with these fictional people. Just as every human being comes out of a *1 woman’s body, every fictional character comes out of a human mind.
Writers talk about getting characters out of their heads all the time, though probably, not many see it as possession. Being deemed “Fictional” may be more about not having a legitimacy granting meat body of their own to inhabit here in the material world, but it doesn’t mean a character isn’t a person. Fictional characters are just another kind of illegal alien who must enter into marriages of convenience for access to this world.
If we go back to the idea of spirit, or soul, whether you believe the assignment of a soul to a human body is an entirely random shuffling and dealing of the cards or according to some preordained cosmic hierarchy, *2 the result is the same once we get here. We get plunked into a body and we’re stuck there for life. Sometimes we end up in a family (or more uncomfortably, a body) where we are totally alien.
If as writers we are inspired to write characters that are totally alien to us, how do we handle that? I think it can be very unsettling, like having a baby that looks and acts like nobody in the family.
Learning to submit, to get out of my characters way and allow them to speak in their own voice, to just give in and let them come into the material world without judgement and censorship was one of the hardest lessons I ever learned about writing. That can be very difficult for people who have the need to be in control all the time. I think that may be where a lot of what we call writers block comes from. It’s a power struggle. You want your characters to think and speak and behave according to your moral judgement, opinions and outlook. You want them be actors who deliver the lines you write and hit their marks on cue. But they may have other ideas.
I think we have been taught to fear and resist possession as a totally negative, unnatural and evil state, (which it surely can be) however, that’s not always so. In the case of artists, a very positive symbiotic relationship can develop. As with most relationships, it’s about respect and balance.
*1 Yes, there is cloning and in vitro etc, and perhaps one day soon women’s bodies will no longer be the sole entryway for human babies.
*2 And if you believe that there is no such thing as a soul or spirit and that all organisms are nothing more than a collection of sophisticated organic machinery with electrical impulses running through them, no disrespect to you, but that’s a whole other conversation.
William Burroughs posited that the word is a virus, do you believe in curses and if so do you think they are word viruses?
Leave it to a writer to see words as threatening viral entities… William Burroughs’ theory that words could be and had been used as weapons, especially recorded spoken word, was very apt and rather prescient. That was an interesting part of his whole cut up theory, that recordings of speeches made by authority figures and politicians could be cut, spliced and remade into new recordings with entirely new context. This has been shown to be possible in amusing examples of YouTube videos, perhaps it has been done for more nefarious purposes as well. I think Mr. Burroughs would have been delighted and appalled by the creative examples of depravity and satire offered up on YouTube, it’s a shame he missed it. I’d love to hear the rant that would probably have resulted.
Words have always been used for evil as much as for good.
We’ve moved into a strange stage of altered representations of reality between what’s possible with photo and audio/video manipulation software and the gleeful efforts of a vast and eager populace who love to repeat and share even the most outlandish lies. Even a casual user can rework reality in what used to be considered mediums of proof. But really, it doesn’t even take tricky video skills these days, a simple old fashioned press release or an amateur gossip blogger or even a sham news organization like Fox can lob a word bomb out and away we go.
A curse, pure and simple, is an assertion that someone is due to experience harm and how the harm will come about. A curse is also a contract. The cursed must play their part and believe they are cursed, or the thing will not work.
A virus is a self-replicating organism that depends on outside means to introduce it to a suitable host environment, where it then reproduces itself and affects the host according to its design.
I suppose you could say a curse is a kind of word virus. A biological virus can be foiled by a strong immune system. A curse can be foiled by strong common sense.
I think Mr. Burroughs’ idea of a word virus was on a bigger societal scale, but did rely heavily on the transmission aspects of viral entities. (I can only chuckle at what he might have thought of Twitter, and share buttons…) Words in and of themselves contain no power, just as a virus outside of the proper host environment is null. But the interpretation of words by human minds and the willingness to act as vectors for those words has resulted in more harm and horror than any biological disease. Words are much harder to defeat when they reach epidemic proportions. The big lie technique of popular opinion control is in full swing on many levels right now.
A curse is very personal and is always the resort of a coward with delusions of grandeur.
Is the Bella Vista a real place?
The Bella Vista motel is based on a real motel that I visited in Texas in 1993. The name of that motel is lost to me now, but my Bella Vista becomes more real the more I write about it. The story of what happened to me there and how it inspired me to begin writing the Bella Vista series is on my website in the Memnoir section. The town of Ozona is real, but I doubt the rotary club would approve of my version of it, which is decidedly fictional and not a very flattering likeness. I’ve always been fascinated by the underside of Americana, the small town folksy image of good God fearing people who present that Norman Rockwell sweetness at first glance, but are capable of casual evil in their day to day lives.
Do you see ghosts and if so what do you believe they are?
What are ghosts? They are the unknown, undefinable element. They are persistent thoughts that take on a life of their own. They are memories that become parasitic. They are collections of cellular debris that get trapped in our atmosphere like smog. They are traumatic energy that intensifies into will. They are non-corporeal life forms that joyride on our material plane. They are long distance messages. They are souls that refuse to or don’t know how to move on. They are persons.
Seeing ghosts… that question is difficult. As much as I’ve blathered on already, that’s a very personal question for me. I have exposed myself by relating my experience in the motel on my website, and though I don’t exactly regret it, I do get a sort of squirmy feeling about it. There’s this trade off, between wanting to be known for one’s work, becoming known as a writer, and wanting to retain a certain level of privacy. There’s a side of me that would like my work to answer all the questions. Have I seen ghosts? Read my stories. But people always want more, don’t they?
I don’t go around like the child in The Sixth Sense seeing dead people everywhere. But I have had some very intense experiences, and the death of someone close to me at a young age affected me deeply. Some of my experiences involved other still living people who I would not want to disturb or hurt if they were to read my accounts. I also have no wish to invite contact with them.
It all gets tangled up with what I feel I have a right to relate as a writer and how much consideration I feel obligated to give to others. You pay a price writing nonfiction about real people, you leave a trail for them to find you and create a hole in the fence. Some of the small flash stories that I wrote on Six Sentences were inspired by personal experiences. They were like tiny memoirs and I realized, I’m not ready to write like that. My fences are there for a reason.
I can’t remember the exact quote or who said it it, but something like, writing fiction frees you to tell the truth, comes to mind. I write fiction because it allows me to give full range to my thoughts, feelings and desires. I can draw from pure imagination and I can also put the way I felt, what I saw during an actual experience into a fictional account and feel no obligation to shelter or apologize to anyone. As far as my fiction writing is concerned, I will write what I want to and what wants to be written, according to my own standards and no one else’s.
I do have standards, however, despite being a horror writer. Going back to the idea that some fictional characters are entities, (which by the way, I didn’t mean to imply that’s an original thought, other artists have postulated that theory much better than I) just because I believe they are people who want to be known in our material world, doesn’t mean I believe they have divine right to come through whomever they choose. Unless one is a child, or a person in some way being held against their will, all relationships are consensual. I have said no to characters that I just couldn’t live with giving voice to. And with me, no means no. As writers, and artists of any kind, it’s absolutely our right to choose.
Do you think that schizophrenia inhabits some of the same places of otherness we have been discussing, and if so how do the schizophrenic’s visions differ from those of someone not suffering from what are perceived to be delusions by mainstream psychiatry?
I think much of what is characterized as mental illness inhabits some of the same places of otherness we have been discussing.
It’s been said that artists make money from the products of their insanity. I’d be happy to agree, if I could get paid. This is another question that could generate pages of discussion, but I’ll try to be brief.
Schizophrenics cannot negotiate the disparity of what’s going on in the material world their bodies inhabit and the visions and thoughts they experience in their minds. The really severely ill people simply can’t navigate through the duality of inner and outer experience.
The judgement of all mental illness comes down to degrees of functioning within society. Are you able to hold down a job or generate income in some legally recognized way, maintain some sort of indoor residence, care for your personal hygiene, feed and clothe yourself? Good. Congratulations, you are deemed sane enough, with allowances for eccentricity based on how far you stray from the norm in any extracurricular activities. You can wear your tinfoil hat or display your vote for Sarah Palin button with pride, as long as you meet the basic criteria and maintain your credit card payments.
The important distinctions are the ability to function and the ability to differentiate between unusual visions and the usual state of being. Sanity means being able to understand that something unusual is happening and having the power to separate yourself from what you see. Extra points for being able to derive meaning from it and turn it into a painting, a film or a book.
What do you think are the main differences between dangerous women and dangerous men?
I don’t think there is a lot of difference, I think it’s just that we’ve learned to attribute gender to certain characteristics. So, for example, it’s more shocking and unexpected when a woman is a stupid thug, but any sensitive grade school kid will tell you, girl bullies have hard fists, too.
It’s always the unexpected that gets you. Cold brutality that is thought of as a male attribute, and the underhanded emotional cruelty that is thought of as female are especially devastating when they are co-opted by the opposite sex. You see this a lot in corporate environments, women behaving like tyrants, abusing power in order to intimidate and men using emotional manipulation to avoid taking responsibility.
I think the most dangerous people are those who can project an aura of harmlessness, kindly demeanor, polite behavior, friendly smiles, but who make it their life’s work to cause harm in anonymous ways. So basically, managers, corporate executives, politicians, bureaucrats, anyone who makes decisions that negatively affect others without bothering their own conscience. Civilized modern society has trained and nurtured armies of sociopaths who do more damage sitting in front of a computer creating control freak policies or enforcing mass cruelty than even the most brutal serial killers.
To me, one of the worst and most abusive human characteristics is the urge to control and limit the freedom of other people. To go back to William Burroughs, he wrote at some length and very colorfully about the petty urge to mind other people’s business and always be right. To assume that your beliefs and tastes should be imposed on all other humans, and their right to self determination should be denied if they disagree with you, that is certainly an expression of evil and is unfortunately engaged in with equal vigor by both sexes.
Tell us about the effect spoken word and audio narration have had on your writing.
I’ve had a lifelong love of oral storytelling and reading aloud. I was a child who wanted more than anything to hear stories and would sit still and listen for as long as people would indulge me. As soon as I learned to read, I read aloud every day. I was raised by my elderly, religious great-grandparents. My grampa was a minister and we read from small books published by our church that had a page or so of psalms or little parables meant to begin and end the day at breakfast and dinner time.
Storytelling in my family was just a natural component of conversation and what came about when people got together. Hearing stories about how things were “in the olden days” was fascinating to me, and still is. I love listening to recorded interviews from the library of congress or anywhere I can find them.
I remember discovering a local radio station when I was a kid that played old radio drama recordings and feeling like I was time traveling while listening. I had vinyl records of folk tale collections that I wore out. When books on tape started happening, it was like they were made for me, but all those cassette tapes… And then there came the iPod, and an audio junky found her crack pipe.
I’m not joking. At last count I had more than six hundred audiobooks. I listen to books every day. If I really like the narrator and the story, I’ll listen to books over and over the way people listen to music. There are certain narrators that I seek out and will listen to almost anything they read because I love the sound of their voices.
Listening to stories read aloud engages a different part of the brain than reading the written word. As a writer, I find that the way the story sounds to me is always more important than how it looks. I’ve taken to using dictation software to create some of my work and certain pieces, like Roy’s New Eye for example, were written specifically for narration. (Though that piece has a decidedly comedic edge to it and is meant to be an homage to classic radio horror stories.)
I started taking voice acting classes some time ago and have been gaining technical skills and acquiring equipment. I’ve begun narrating stories with a goal of going professional. I wrote and recorded a short flash piece titled, To Be Together Again, that I posted on my blog recently which I think is one of my best short stories.
Pamila thank you for giving an interview that is not only original but honest. You have said so much here.
The bulk of my stories are available on my websites, though I do have two stories on Powderburn Flash, one up at The Journal and one on At The Bijou.
The story at The Journal, She Got Hers, is one I think really represents the horror aspects of Bella Vista well.
Currently, I’m editing a Bella Vista Motel novel entitled, The Ballad of John Daniel. It’s the story of a local kid from Ozona with a beautiful voice, whose dreams of leaving Texas to become a professional musician are derailed when he picks up part-time handyman work at the Bella Vista Motel, and falls victim to its dark mystery.
My own links are my blog, Bella Vista and my main writers website, The Bella Vista Motel.
My audio short story, To Be Together Again is here.
And on Twitter, I am @mspamila.
Filed under: Interviews
Charles Gramlich is a versatile author who can write in most styles.
He has an MA and PhD in experimental psychology. He is a member of REHupa, The Robert E Howard United Press Association, and is one of the editors for The Dark Man, the Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies. He teaches psychology at Xavier University of Louisiana.
Charles is the author of several novels and short stories. Most of his work is science fiction or horror, although he goes beyond these genres. He is a writer who resists categorization because of the individuality of his thinking.
His first novel in paperback form was Cold in the Light, a horror thriller with science fiction elements that drew comparisons with the early work of Dean Koontz. His most recent novels in paperback, Swords of Talera, Wings Over Talera and Witch of Talera, are Sword & Planet works in the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series.
Charles also writes poetry, fantasy and non-fiction. In August, 2008, Charles had his first poetry chapbook published, a collection of vampire haiku entitled Wanting the Mouth of a Lover, published by Spec House of Poetry. And in May of this year, a collection of short fantasy stories called Bitter Steel was published by Borgo Press.
Have a look at Charles’ blog for links to all his works and for a guaranteed interesting and informative read.
Charles met me at The Slaughterhouse and we talked about psychology, and the uncertainty of self within horror fiction.
Do you think that crossing the threshold of consciousness into the core of the psyche is analogous to crossing the event horizon that surrounds a black hole?
That’s a very interesting analogy and not one I’ve particularly thought about before. One difference is that we know much more about the core of the psyche than we know about what lies beyond the event horizon. And another difference is that, while very little escapes a black hole back across the event horizon, what’s in the core of the psyche escapes constantly and interacts prominently with the outside world. We just have a hard time seeing it in ourselves, although we can often detect it easily in others.
Here’s my opinion: What’s in the “core” of the psyche is animal. Freud called it an “id,” although there are some subtle differences. Rationality lies outside the core, outside the event horizon if we go with the analogy. But we detect the core all the time, primarily through emotions and spontaneous behaviors rather than through thoughts. Sudden rages, petty jealousies, seemingly irrational desires, are all evidence of something escaping the core. Most people, however, so strongly reject the core impulses with their rational mind that they won’t even admit that they’ve experienced them and will look at you like you’re crazy if you bring it up.
Sometimes, I think the most important field in psychology is comparative psychology, the attempt to explain or understand human behavior through study and comparison with animal behavior. I’m talking particularly about mammal behavior. There’s where we’re most likely to ferret out the secrets of humanity’s personal “black hole.”
Continuing with the analogy, some physicists believe black holes may be pathways to parallel universes. When you consider the body of literature about doppelgangers, could what Carl Jung called the shadow be a form of psychological parallel universe, given the threat that those repressed energies and thought forms constitute to some individuals?
Stories about doppelgangers have always evoked a sense of Jekyll and Hyde for me, but that story in itself suggests the Jungian “Shadow.” Hyde is very much such a being. There’s a theory that says that primitive humans often saw their thoughts as originating outside of themselves, and that this is the genesis of our concept of gods and demons. It may well be the origin of doppelgangers as well.
The very idea of a psychological parallel universe is a fascinating one. Given how resistant most people are to really analyzing the baser emotions that surge up from our animal core, I can see the analogy working. We usually think of the “animal” as living inside us, but it makes as much sense to think of it as living “beside” us. According to the theory, parallel universes can be as close as a whisper to us and yet go unseen. Our animal core, from which the “Shadow” derives and from where doppelgangers might reasonably come, is closer still. It shambles along at our shoulder, but no matter how often we turn our head we are unlikely to catch a glimpse of it. Maybe some folks do catch a glimpse, and it must be a terrifying experience. I know I’m going to feel weird about looking over my shoulder for a while.
Given the fact that most people are resistant to analyzing their base and repressed instincts, do you believe that this repression is necessary to the narcissistic function of the socialized ego and that religion has served the purpose of sanitizing the self as we understand it to exist?
Absolutely. Anti-theists today tend to want to abolish all organized religions and they point, rightly in many cases, to some of the serious damage that supposedly religious individuals have done and are doing to other people. However, I think it’s pretty clear that without religion in the past there would be no civilization of today. For civilization to exist, human impulses had to be curbed and controlled. Religion has proved to be very successful at that, which is why so many of them still exist and still have so many followers.
Although most religions acknowledge the existence of the baser impulses (at least the less abhorrent of them), they generally do not examine them very closely. They’d prefer to believe that those impulses can be curbed by a “just say no” approach. The primary techniques that religions use to curb the impulses are fear and guilt, which are quite powerful forces and often work.
Even people in our society who were not raised overtly in a religious environment are still shaped by religious ideas and ideals. You’ll often hear people say that they simply cannot “imagine” certain crimes. That very statement is a clear sign of successful repression, and it generally arises from a level of religious indoctrination.
Do you think that most people are engaged in enacting a fantasy version of themselves and if so what is the self?
Most people clearly do not have a very realistic view of themselves. Evidence shows that folks engage in systematic patterns of distortion. Most people evaluate themselves more positively than others evaluate them, or than objective reality would support. For example, most people will indicate that they vote more frequently than they really do, that they give more to charity than they do, but that they drink less than they do. Most people will say they were more popular in high school than seems to be true, and that they even scored more points in sports than the stats reveal. It’s like a fisherman exaggerating the size of his fish. A key point is that, while people initially understand that they are exaggerating a little, they will eventually begin to believe the exaggeration to be actual truth. Thus, the “fish” actually becomes as big in memory as it was exaggerated to be initially.
One very interesting thing is that people prone to depression tend to do the opposite. They evaluate themselves less positively than others do, and remember themselves as being less popular and as scoring fewer points that in reality. Some suggest that depressed individuals actually have a more “realistic” view of themselves than do other people, but both are distorting their memories in service to their psychology.
As for what the “self” is, I’m fond of saying: “Objective reality is nothing. Subjective reality is everything.” I tend to think of self as being a psychological construct of the individual, which in some cases is pretty close to the objective reality and in other cases far removed. I do believe it is important for people to generally have a positive view of themselves, because it energizes them to work toward their goals and to believe they can be successful. However, the self-esteem movement in the United States has backfired in some cases by producing individuals who have such high positive self-esteem that they won’t accept responsibility for their own weaknesses and failures. That is definitely not a realistic view of self.
If we move this into horror, to what extent is horror driven by the uncertainty of self?
For many writers, not just horror writers, their craft is driven by an attempt to define themselves in relationship to others and to their world. Much of this is unconscious. The writer wonders, “what would I do if faced with a specific situation,” and the writer’s characters are the surrogates that are used to answer that question.
For horror writers, the question is, “what would I do if faced with pain and death and decay?” Because these experiences will come to us all, they are some of the most critical questions any human can ask, and readers also ask them. They are also such intense experiences that the “self” can easily shatter when confronted with them. In horror fiction, the characters must always shatter, at least to some extent. This is a difference between “horror” and “thriller.” In a thriller, the character will be pushed right to the edge and then come back. In horror, the character will break. The self will splinter and, if the character survives, a new self will be hammered back together from the shards. This is one way that writers, especially horror writers, explore the uncertainty of self.
Do you think that powerful geographical locations such as valleys and mountains are symbolic to the psyche?
I think that what is “symbolic” to modern humanity are often things that were “salient” to our primitive ancestors. Essentially, something is salient if it is attention getting, if it stands out. A red car among more drably colored ones. The loud noise of a gunshot among the quieter noises of a suburban neighborhood.
Mountains are definitely salient. They jut up from the surroundings; they draw the eye. And they are tough to explore, which means they are often mysterious. Humans seem always to have had a tendency to assign the “strange” to unexplored places. Old maps sometimes simply labeled unexplored places with “here be monsters.” Mountains, being highly visible and yet hard to explore, were ideal places for the human imagination to populate with “gods” and “demons.” Their salience and their remoteness led them to become powerful symbols for modern humans.
Valleys are salient in a different way. They can provide protection, hideouts from the dangers of the outside world. And because valleys tend to have rich soil deposited by flood waters, they may be a rich source of food. It is probably that valleys became the first places where humans settled permanently. No doubt they are the first places where agriculture thrived. In the human psyche they become forever linked with wealth and the birth of life. However, because valleys were rich, they often became battlefields, too, and they sometimes presided over large scale destruction from floods. In this way, valleys became symbolic for modern humans as places of both great promise and great peril.
Who are your main literary influences?
I’ve always been an eclectic reader so my influences come from many different genres. The big five for me would be: Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Louis L’Amour, John D. MacDonald, and Ray Bradbury. These were all writers I discovered at a relatively young age and whose works I devoured. Their relative influence depends on the genre I’m writing in. For example, my fantasy work is influenced most by Howard, Burroughs and L’Amour, my horror by Howard, MacDonald and Bradbury.
A little later in life I discovered H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Chambers, Dean Koontz, Joe Lansdale, Karl Edward Wagner, and Kenneth Bulmer. All of these put their stamp on my writing. The first four had big effects on my horror, while the last two influenced my fantasy more.
I think of myself as a “genre-baby,” a “pulp-baby,” so I don’t think I’ve been much influenced by the authors of the classics. There are two exceptions. I’ve read most everything Hemingway ever wrote and I greatly admire the man’s ability with words. He has definitely been an influence. The other influence from the more literary side of the writing world is Peter Matthiessen, whose book, The Snow Leopard, is, to me, the greatest work ever written in the English language.
Do you think that fantasy literature is attempting to undermine reality as we see it?
Well, I suppose we could first discuss the whole idea of “reality,” of what it is. I tend to think that reality is far more subjective than many folks would feel comfortable with. I do believe that many things have an objective reality. A tree that falls in the forest makes a sound, whether or not humans are there or not. To believe otherwise smacks of immense arrogance to me. But, what about an argument between two lovers over feelings? Where does any objective reality lie in such a case?
In a world where imagination and emotional perceptions are important, I believe fantasy literature does exactly the opposite of undermining reality. I think it teaches us that the standard concept of reality is far too simplistic and restricting. It expands our notion of reality, and it is from such an expansion that breakthroughs in science and society come. “Reality” is made to be bent.
The family is the building block of society, as an experimental psychologist do you think the family is more pathological than other forms of social conditioning?
I wouldn’t say ‘more’ pathological. Humans are rife with pathologies and the family isn’t any exception. But at least in the family one often (if certainly not always) gets love along with the pathology, and love can make up for at least some harm. Political states are rife with pathologies of their own, and there’s certainly no love in them to mitigate the harm. Even good governments can scarcely have any real interest in helping the troubled underclass of their people. Schools tend to reflect the pathologies of the states, but despite that a lot of good can be done in them when they encourage a love of learning and an open mind. In too many schools, however, there is an indifference to or an actual distaste for the “free” mind. Schools not only teach conformity on their own, but provide breeding grounds for the stronger kids to force conformity on their peers. And religions have their own pathologies. Some of them are spectacular, as when they encourage violence against others in the name of the religion.
As for my own social conditioning, give me a family first that loves me, give me a school that encourages me to question and explore, give me a religion that practices the charity that they often teach, and give me a government that doesn’t try to use me as either a cash cow or as cannon fodder. I think they call such a place Utopia.
What’s the one goal that you have in writing that is a bit unusual?
I’ve always wanted to publish at least one of every kind and genre of writing. I’ve published SF, fantasy, horror, thriller, western, children’s, mainstream, pastiche, and erotica in fiction. I’ve done print books and ebooks. In nonfiction I’ve published scientific articles, book reviews, personal essays and columns. In poetry I’ve published free verse and haiku. I’ve published a few stories that combined elements of other genres so I tend to count both of those things. For example, I have a horror story that has a very strong romantic subplot so I’ll claim that I’ve published romance too. I did a Robert E. Howard pastiche that featured a boxer so I can claim I’ve written a sports story.
But there are a lot of things I haven’t published. I’ve never published any poetry in any kind of “formal” form. I’ve never written a mystery, even of the noir detective kind. I’ve never done a comic or graphic novel script. I’ve never published a play. I’ve never written an animal story, although I have one about a third done. I haven’t really published an urban fantasy. I’ve never done an actual ghost story, although I came pretty close.
And since new subgenres form pretty frequently, it’s likely that I’ll never quite achieve this goal. But I still keep plugging. And I really appreciate you giving me a chance to ramble on like this about all the weird ideas that churn through my brain. Thanks.
Thank you Charles for giving a unique and stimulating interview.
Filed under: Interviews
Matthew C Funk is a horror writer, among other things. He writes dark, menacing and psychologically incisive horror that cuts to the core of the genre. His stories are hard to forget. They get into the reader’s head. He is also the author of 8 novels, 2 screenplays, 2 plays, and nearly 100 articles.
He is a scholar of contemporary defence issues and of World War II and works as a social media consultant for Corporate America in Southern California.
He holds a BA in political science and graduated from the University of Southern California with a Masters degree in professional writing, where he studied with Hubert Selby jnr. He met me at The Slaughterhouse and we discussed horror, politics, terrorism and psychology.
How would you define horror?
Horror is power.
Horror is being confronted by our vulnerabilities. Our vulnerabilities compel us – they inform our appetites on the most basic level, whether they’re fear of harm, fear of being alone or fear of hunger. Practically all we do, as nobly as we might attire our reasons, derives from these fears. Consequently, horror is what directs those appetites. In many ways, that’s why satisfaction is relative: An extremely successful, wealthy and secure person can still be miserable if they fear the consequences of failure or emotional solitude. Conversely, someone forced to do with little can be content if they come to terms with their fears.
Horror in storytelling boils down to externalizing those vulnerabilities. That’s why horror, as a genre, can be so diverse. There are comedic horrors like the ‘Goosebumps’ series, low-intensity horror like many of the gentler works by Stephen King such as ‘Under the Dome’ and high-intensity horror like the Splatterpunk movement’s authors, notably Edward Lee, Jack Ketchum and Richard Laymon. We tell stories about these disquieting things – whether they’re spooky, alarming or disgusting – because we’re fascinated with our fears and somehow need to come to grips with them.
But all storytelling distills to the element of horror, regardless of genre, because all storytelling distills to conflict. Conflict is a matter of “what will happen,” and if we’re truly engaged by a story it’s because we have an emotional investment – a concern – for the character. We literally fear for them: We fear that their true love will never come about; that they will not solve the mystery in time; that they will not overcome their inner demons. That fear is a horror, no matter how mild. And we keep bound to a plot because that concern has a power over us.
And, of course, the best stories – the best horrors – are the ones we cannot turn away from and do not want to end.
Appetites drive our horses, but it’s horror that holds the whip.
Do you think the most effective horror uses the hidden part of the psyche for its effects?
Yes, in that I believe horror must be grounded in the subconscious in order to truly resonate. It has to inspire the anxieties of our thanatic or erotic identity – our death and sex interest, respectively. Horror is most effective when it touches the parts of us that influence our basic selves and inform our primal fears and desires.
H. P. Lovecraft famously declared that the greatest fear was the fear of the unknown, but I think this is only true in part. Yes, there has to be some element of the unknown for horror to have impact. But even Lovecraft’s writings, which primarily focused on the legacies of alien deities and extradimensional forces, were rooted in the material and played with human anxieties over sex and death. His prehistorical or outer space evils were scary because they could do harm to us – either by driving us mad, devouring us physically or assaulting us sexually. So, even when a horror writer employs the power of cosmic vastness to scare us, he or she has to focus that power on afflicting our sex-death fears.
It’s for this reason that, much as I have a pre-occupation with horror, I best enjoy writing and reading stories of the noir, war or thriller genres. Horror at its more fantastical is not nearly so abhorrent as the horrors that surround us: Criminal deeds, vicious insanity and casual cruelty. Again, I think of the Horror genre writing of Jack Ketchum, who usually spins his yarns right out of the headlines or from human history, turning the real-life deeds of people like Gertrude Banizewski and Sawney Beane into horror fare. We’re most afraid – most revolted and disgusted by – what humans do to one another. In that regard, I believe that most Thriller genre novels are just horror by another name: The predation and depravity of a serial killer uses the same dramatic elements and plays on the same Id fears as the horror story employs.
It’s no mistake or anomaly that the most unacceptable, most horrific stories are those that involve humans engaged in abuse of other humans – particularly sexual abuse. It’s easier to read a story about a sentient wolf eating a little girl, as in Red Riding Hood, than it is when it’s a human being eating her.
The most potent horror – so potent many can’t bear to read it – comes from what humans do to other humans. It strikes us, unvarnished and undeniable, in the base of our identity.
Tell us about your work in contemporary defence issues and what do you think of Chomsky’s observation that we are living in a culture of terrorism?
I’ve always been dedicated to becoming a professional writer, but I went to university to learn something to write about.
No offense to English majors, but I wanted to acquire more than an attention to the craft. I figured that as much fiction and non-fiction that I read, and as close attention as I paid to it, I didn’t have to devote an official undergraduate course of study to it. I also wanted a broad view of the world, to pick up knowledge of different cultures, histories and personal dynamics.
So the question was, what to learn? I wanted scholarship that had its teeth sunk into the themes that fascinated me – human extremes, madness, agony, dreams and deceit. Politics seemed a perfect fit. I went into Political Science and gravitated toward the brutal and heroic, winding my way into an International Relations Minor with a focus on defense studies. It wasn’t that I so loved the ‘shoot ’em up’ action; the psychology of people in combat, civilian or soldier, was what entranced me. The grand strategies were also so gripping, because as much as it might be varnished with patriotic polish and wrapped in the solemn nobility of service to the country, war-making and political victory came down to mass manipulation.
You’ve really axed the keg here, Richard, so prepare for me to pour forth at length. See, war for me came down to horror and fear, too. Yes, the argument could be made that resources played an enormous role – both as a motivator for a state to go to war and for a state to sustain that war effort. However, it boiled down to poker game dynamics; has throughout history. It was about making the other side fold first, and that took bringing horror to bear against the adversary. Even before the guns started firing, relations between adversarial nations was a staring contest. And once the bombs were falling and pieces of human beings were suddenly bursting through the air, all it meant was that the ante was upped in the fear quotient.
Dig me: Von Clausewitz, a Prussian military thinker during Napoleon’s time, had it right when he said that war came down to destroying the enemy’s ability to fight. The ability to fight is psychological as much as it is physical. The most successful war tactics and weaponry are the ones that make the enemy despair and fear. That’s been various things throughout history – cavalry charges, tanks, cruise missile strikes with laser-guided accuracy. But it all comes down to making the enemy look at the carnage around him or her – the shredded friends, the smoke and shock and sound, the grim invincibility of the perpetrators – and having them think, “Aw fuck it; I surrender.”
There are exceptions, but they’re few and arguable. The Mongol invasion of Arabia comes to mind – they wiped out about 80% of the population in Baghdad after warning them not to resist. That’s a good example of “total warfare,” where the enemy is literally killed into submission. But even still, it can be argued that the Mongols did that not so much as to defeat the Arabs but to scare future adversaries into giving up without much of a fight.
The pre-eminent role of fear in war is brilliantly illuminated by recent warfare. In World War II, the Germans – and later the Soviets and Allies – used blitzkrieg operations to gain many of their big victories. Blitzkrieg is a kind of warfare where your objective isn’t to stand and kill the enemy, but to get behind them, encircle them and make them too afraid to fight on. Then we have Vietnam, a true staring contest, where the will of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong prevailed over immense American resources. It’s the same in the “war on terror”. The times things have gone well for the Americans overseas is when they can really get a handle on the minds of the adversaries, and twist them to be more afraid of fighting the US than they are of allying with it. Famously, this is what happened in Petraeus’ surge strategy, which had a lot of similarities to the strategy Pompey Magnus, Caesar’s mentor, employed in suppressing the factious and bandit-ridden states of Mithridates’ Asia Minor empire. Basically, it came down to paying off and manipulating the guerrilla fighters while presenting such a formidable military force that it seemed more profitable to switch allegiances.
So, war is about psychology – the abyss and the heights of human psychology; the most ruthless and monstrous fears and the most self-sacrificing, transcendent passions. I was fascinated with warfare for many years and my fiction reflected it. I wrote mostly about the World War II-era Germans and Soviets, as they had brilliantly depraved characters and settings, and committed the vastest and vilest inhumanities history has ever seen.
To bring this lengthy ramble back to Noir and to Chomsky’s “culture of terrorism,” it’s important to note that what I wrote on – what mesmerized me – was how banal evil was in these grand tragedies. Monstrosity was less a matter of the cryptic dementia of solitary psychopaths or nefarious plotters as it was born of laziness, pettiness and pedestrian fears. Whether the subject is the Holocaust, the Soviet Great Terror or the atrocious slaughter of the Eastern Front, the wellspring of that darkness was usually callow and common. I wrote on the soldiers, slaughterers and victims of Nazis and Soviets because they weren’t demonic – they were, as Christopher Browning titled it in his genius examination of a battalion of Holocaust perpetrators, “Ordinary Men“. I wanted people to understand this.
Whether the villains are death camp guards or mass murderers or the kind of frontline grunts who had to contend with butchering civilians or running human waves, these were guys who had families and histories of non-violence. And at this point, readers might nod their heads thinking, “yes, we get it, but war changes people.” But what I wanted to expose went beyond that. I wanted to relate, from the oral histories and accounts I studied, that even when it came to pulling the trigger on women and children, the men were usually just afraid to speak up. They didn’t want to look weak, or lose their jobs, or seem different from the others in the squad. Or, in the case of combat, they wanted to retaliate to the constant fear and anxiety and horror they felt. And once that trigger was pulled, it was a step into darkness: Into shame, into justification, into all the maniacal self-loathing and transformation that turns people into casual monsters. At the top of it all, you find the easy abuse of the bureaucrat, who issues orders for “pacification operations” – read, mass murder of civilians – or “transportation programs” – read, death camp slave labor – and then goes home worrying more about his kids’ grades or his wife’s griping about needing a vacation or his angina than he does about the fact that he’s consigned thousands, even millions, to agony and death.
Evil is so very easy and so very dumb most of the time.
And that’s what I take from Chomsky’s “culture of terrorism” – that nations, specifically the USA in his study, so readily accept the destruction and agony that their state commits. You had me pegged right as the kind of grim political analyst that would endorse Chomsky’s observations. For those not familiar with the term Chomsky advances – the “culture of terrorism” – it’s basically the notion that citizens of powerful countries get incensed at the enemy’s terror but hardly pay a thought to the terrorism their own country, the one they have direct influence over, engages in.
I believe that wholeheartedly. My Noir tries to reflect that. I write, usually, about conditions of severe poverty and injustice, and how it warps minds and grinds lives down. And that is a “culture of terrorism” – a culture wherein, despite our riches and political power, we allow people to starve and be ruined by a bizarre and cruel justice system.
Now, I’ll be clear, I’m a big-time patriot. That having been said, some facts to support my perception of a culture of terrorism: America has the largest prison population in the world. “The Land of the Free” locks up more people than Russia and China – just over 2 million, I believe. That’s a quarter of the people behind bars in the world, in a nation with 5% of the world population. And once a US citizen becomes a convict, their lives are wrecked. Employment is terribly difficult, as are basic freedoms like mobility and voting. Most of this is from drug crimes and petty offenses. We also have terrible conditions of poverty. We tolerate terrible conditions of poverty in other countries too, when it comes to the sweat shop labor that our manufacturers routinely employ overseas – all of which means less American manufacturing jobs. And, of course, there’s the issue of our actual warfare.
It all adds up to people not really caring much at all about the suffering that they could change, if they took political action – suffering and terror inflicted in their name. Chomsky’s use of the term “terrorism” relates to the low-intensity wars that the US was advancing during the 80s, using CIA support. It could be applied to the war on terror though.
To wrap it up, my opinions on the subject vary somewhat from the logical moral conclusion of the analysis. That’s a fancy way of saying, I’m not anti-war, nor am I anti-intervention. I am also greedy and lazy. I want cheap clothes and I want cheap gas. However, that means I want the American people to really, really think about the cost-effectiveness of what their country gets involved with and their role in endorsing it by political consent.
What bothers me is the irrationality that many citizens apply to America’s war-making. The War on Terror’s an excellent example. The American people lusted for payback and security after 9/11, and that’s entirely logical. Where the moral and logical premise jumped the tracks is when the U.S.A. took a “pre-emptive” strategy toward threats.
Many would argue, “Shit, we have to nail them before they do us.” But think of the cost of that. Afghanistan is a historic sinkhole of resources that empires from Alexander to the British tried to “pacify” or “enlighten” to ridiculous lack of success and terrific squandering of lives, pain and cash. If one makes the argument, “Well, America can do it – we’re wealthy and clever,” then, okay, just check out the price tag. Don’t get into a mess like Afghanistan or Iraq without realizing that to actually win would take more than a credit card and a pep rally. It’d take brutal counter-insurgency operations, a tremendous enlargement of the military and decades of commitment to not just taking lives in Afghanistan but improving them vastly.
But people don’t think logically or economically. They just see burkhas and honor killings and think we have to intervene. They see evil and want good to win. Well, the sad news is that evil is all over the place. And if a nation changes strategy from “we have to pursue our political and economic interests” to “we have to hunt down evil and destroy it,” then there are a lot more threatening evils than where we’re involved: North Korea, Uganda and Myanmar just to rattle off three monstrous nations.
So that’s the point of war and horror: That we have to understand it to engage it. That’s what my writing is about and that’s what I’d like to see change in political awareness. It won’t happen, though. People have too much other shit to worry about than thinking about who stitches their Nikes or whether fighting Al-Qaeda, a Saudi-based outfit, in Afghanistan, a nation that’s not even Arab let alone Saudi, makes any sense.
Chomsky uses the term ‘Manufacturing Consent’ when referring to the notion that mass media is prejudiced in its coverage of politics by its economic interests. What do you think of this and the implication that we inhabit a fictional landscape sold as fact which is aimed at manipulating us and supporting political agendas most civilians have no idea about?
I think it’s dead on. I’ll put it concisely as I can:
Sex, sleaze and shock sell, and if the media can’t find that kind of news, it’ll make it.
We inhabit a world entirely manufactured – not just in terms of being given doctored news, but being peddled a product designed to be saleable. Whether it’s cable news, talk radio or podium propaganda, the message we’re given is carefully massaged for marketability. That’s because all of these things – whether it’s running for office or selling a story – come down to having to make a buck. Same rules apply to fiction writers – your story’s only so successful as its ability to reach a market.
This means that we’re being told what we want to hear and manipulated into knowing what we want. It has to come down to dollar value – it has to – because you have to sell ad space to stay on the air. That means messages have to be carved to fit the common audience, or warped to play on the fears and desires of a market. It’s this force that powered the rise of cable news and talk radio. FOX News defined itself by creating a “culture war” against the “liberal media” and MSNBC responded by pandering to the liberals. With all these channels springing up on the TV, radio and Web, people no longer need to hear news they don’t like. They can tune in to their favorite talking points.
And all of the major talking points are cautious about offending their real sponsors: The corporations that power their stations, link their satellites and buy the ad space. Anybody who deviates from a palatable portion between car and beer commercials is derided as a lunatic or blatherer. That means that reforms that would really shake up the system – really change things – like actual tax reform, non-intervention or drug legalization are smeared as fringe ideas. They may be perfectly logical, but if they don’t sit well with General Electric, pharmaceutical companies or the defense sector, they get only enough air time to get blasted as batshit.
So is that “manufactured”? Undeniably. Anything constructed for a profit motive is, by definition. And is it “consent”? Absolutely. None of the significant political players are shaking things up, and most citizens are happy to point fingers at the other side as the result of the worsening quagmire. What they fail to realize is that there really are no “sides” – just a fixed fight between two branches of corporate tools. That’s not just the nature of political compromise. It’s that the media will always go for the balls when they tell a story, to keep the scandal going. Heroes are only built up so that they can be torn down. Our news runs on bloodshed and stained sheets, so that corporations can sell diapers. We eat it up, whether with apathy or gusto.
As for whether we have no idea about it, I doubt that. I just think most people don’t care. They hear about the conditions behind bars or the way drug crimes ruin lives or the failure of borders or abuses in a war zone. They just sigh about it then go back to watching Jersey Shore and worrying about the mortgage.
Given what you mention about economics, much of it is controlled by the pharmaceutical industry.
You are an admirer of William Burroughs’s fiction and he showed addiction as extending from drug users to those addicted to sex and violence. He used it as a metaphor for social control programs. Do you believe that this is still relevant and that the real solution to the drug problem is to legitimise it so that it can be regulated?
It is not only relevant, it has become a principal character in our society. Burroughs’ dystopia is alive and well in the pulse of the First World, and that pulse is heavily medicated. The only futurist writer from the turn of the century who truly nailed the vision of our times would be Alduous Huxley – the citizens of his “Brave New World” gobbling down fistfuls of Soma to get through lives overstimulated by banal, sensationalist crap.
That’s where we are: Burroughs’ boogeyman, heroin, has nothing like the reach of big drug companies. People devour medications in order to take the edge off of conditions that, much of the time, wouldn’t even exist if not for lifestyle choices. Once the pills put their hooks in, the cure often becomes a disease – anti-anxiety drugs screw up your sleep, so you pop sleeping pills, then need a boost from something else. And yet we can understand why, in this modern world where multitasking is as necessary as breathing and advertising blisters our brain from every direction, why people resort to these medications. For tens of thousands of years, we evolved to live the simple – if occasionally really freaking edgy – routines of foragers and hunters. In the last hundred years, a bombardment of mental stimulation and economic demand has splashed across the civilized world. Our brains are being rudely used constantly, so why not hold on to the anchor of a good, even high? As my moody poet ex-girlfriend from Kenyon College used to say, she was glad to be addicted to smokes because it gave her something she could count on.
So, no, given that the real problem is that mad-cap profit motive will continue to gorge us on stimulation and then sell us the dope to handle it, legalization isn’t the solution. Yeah, it’ll go a long way to fixing some other extremely severe problems – prison conditions, a paroled criminal population unable to assimilate, gangs and cartels with Hulked-out funding from illegal drugs. It’ll also be a huge boon to the economy. But it won’t save people from being junkies of our own device. The linked-in, cracked-out existence is here to stay. We need our fix to get us through the hysterical work day, get the processed food through our kidneys, help us cope.
The same goes for sex and violence – the volume is getting turned up on that, too. That’s nothing new, though. There were no “good old days” when it came to what entertainment gets humanity’s rocks off – just periods of smug, hypocritical propriety like Victorian England. Otherwise, we’ve always been thirsty for donkey shows and dog fights. What’s new is that, like with drugs, we need more and more stimulation to actually feel it.
The cure compounds the disease.
Do you think that the most horrifying thing to the readers of fiction is the darkness of humanity, and how would you distinguish terror from horror?
Yes, I believe the most horrifying monsters for readers are found in the darkness of humanity.
Fantastical monsters – wolfmen, vampires, aliens – are just Halloween masks for the actual elements of horror in a story. It isn’t the power of whatever creature featured that’s horrifying, but what that power can do to the victim. We can cite two particularly fantastic specimens as examples: Stephen King’s “IT” and H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu.
“IT” is about a shapeshifting entity that assumes the form of human fears in order to feed on terror and flesh. That shapeshifting power and appetite is horrific, but only because it does to us what we already fear might happen. If “IT” fed on our love of music, that would seem benign. It is because people are troubled by the notion of the sins and terrors of their past harming them that “IT” is a horrifying entity. Similarly, Cthulhu is a colossal immortal alien who invades our dreams and might, one day, become strong enough to stride the world with his many tentacles, ravaging us. Again, this is scary not because of Cthulhu’s objective qualities, but because we already fear the harm he might inflict.
Stories that invest those fears in human characters are even more horrifying because it makes it more tangible, more realistic, that such things could happen. We’re more afraid of Richard Ramirez than we are of the Wolfman, even though they essentially do the same thing. This isn’t to say that stripping away those masks makes for a better story. Some readers need those masks – that sugar on the pill that makes the horror palatable. There is no universal rule for a successful horror story because there is no universal taste among readers.
There is, however, an essentially greater horror to human beings perpetrating horrific acts. Any horror writer who’s ever scanned for submission guidelines is aware of this, as many publishing venues flatly announce that they don’t want to touch material involving torture, rape or child abuse. Those are three evils epidemic in human deeds, but they incite such revulsion that the story becomes too unpleasant. Whatever pleasure is won from externalizing and confronting a horror becomes too personal and too real. The excitement becomes disgust. There is a reason to why there are ‘limits’ to what is acceptable in mass-market horror, and that reason is that stories can come too close to what humanity is really like.
In light of this, I would be reluctant to differentiate ‘horror’ from ‘terror’ in a general sense – they’re the same integers in a tally of unpleasantness – but I can draw a distinction in fiction’s elements and effects. In fiction, ‘horror’ would be a visceral shock and ‘terror’ would be a more psychological offense. ‘Horror’ is the gruesome, the disgusting, the obscene – the sensory experience that assaults the reader. ‘Terror’ is the disturbing, the twisted idea, the scare that plays purely on the mind. To draw examples from my own work, ‘horror’ is discovering the ribs you’re eating came from your girlfriend (“Smoke and Fire“), and ‘terror’ is hearing how a serial killer equates love with murder (“All In My Head“). It’s important for writers to differentiate these qualities because they are distinctive charms to work on the reader: Horror without terror lacks suspense, mood and atmosphere – it’s merely a brief affront. Terror without any horror can lack impact because it lacks physicality, being too abstract.
Both amount to ingredients in a recipe though, and ultimately the proof of the blood pudding is in the eating. A writer can go too heavy on the horror for some, not heavy enough for others. I would counsel any beginning writers to find encouragement in this: That we are chefs, and the dishes we create are subject to an audience’s tastes.
There is an appetite out there waiting to devour any well-written story – it’s just a matter of finding it.
Horror literature is an offshoot of the Gothic revival that accompanied the Romantic movement in the nineteenth century. If you view it as part of the body of fantasy literature there are recurrent themes, such as doubling or multiplying selves, mirror images, metamorphosis and bodily disintegration from Dickens and Dostoyevsky, through Joseph Conrad and R.L. Stevenson, to Franz Kafka and Thomas Pynchon. It sits within mainstream literature and at its root seems to be the sense that the self is indeterminate. What is more frightening, the loss of self to madness or some force that is alien and inimical to humanity?
As a general rule, I would say that the loss of self to madness is a loss to a force alien and inimical.
At least, that is how the sufferer typically perceives it. Whether that madness is an obsession, a perverse lust or a symptom more phantasmagorical, the ‘host’ often feels beneath its invasive control. Even in the works you cited above, at least those I’m familiar with, the forced transformation of the self occurs by the pressure of an outside catalyst – whether the claustrophobic callousness of the 19th century city or the yawning darkness of the Congo. Madness may spread to full flower feeding on the corruption and angst of the human interior, but that flower hatches from a planted seed.
However, I take your meaning – “inimical to humanity” being the key qualifier there; suggesting supernatural forces. I could only guess which is more frightening overall. My guess would be that the loss of self to madness is more frightening, as droves of work deal with that, whereas the loss of self to truly alien, anti-human forces is a niche of the Horror genre.
That isn’t to say that it’s the case all the time. I think which kind of fright trips the right triggers comes down to personal experience. I have friends who’ve led harrowing lives, and their nightmares are populated by psycho-stalkers with clear, human faces. Meanwhile, my dreams swarm with zombies, reflections of my anxieties over a callow, carnivorous society out to devour me. The same principal applies to which breed of madness – the human or the inhuman – alarms us. I find Lovecraft to be extremely unsettling, but then I tend to have an overactive imagination and a tendency to worry about things like extradimensional brain worms. Someone who has a different upbringing, with a different taxonomy of fears, might feel differently.
What do you think the political role in the mental sanitation of female homicide is?
Same as it has been since the age of Ishtar’s temple priestesses – fear of female sexuality.
In short, the political spin whenever a women gets murderous is that she’s truly a freak of nature. It gets billed as a P. T. Barnum oddity, cast as monstrous and unbelievable. Society doesn’t even like to conceive of women as capable of harm. Being harmed is a different matter; domestic abuse and sexual exploitation usually inspires little more than a shrug, if that. But when it comes to actually having the will to end another life, society’s lens is foggy when it comes to women. That’s why “lady killers” get so much play in the media. It’s like a UFO discovery. It has to be debunked at first, then if it’s accepted, it’s stamped with lunacy.
This isn’t to say that to cram female killers into the context of madness is inaccurate, but only to the extent that any homicide takes a dose of crazy to happen. There is a gender bias, though, because that context isn’t applied equally. Whether male killers are Mafia soldiers or trigger-happy armed robbers, society seeks some logic in their actions. And on the flip side, the actions of female killers are always explored to find illogical qualities.
Now, granted, it is far less common for women to kill. In that regard, instinctively analyzing them as anomalies makes sense. But if we’re to consider homicide itself anomalous to a healthy society, it seems like a lot of twisted male motives get off the hook – many are even romanticized, like when it comes to hard-nosed hitmen willing to take lives out of loyalty to their Capo.
What this has to do with sexuality is that lot of socialization, when it comes to gender, boils down to sexual anxieties. It may be a man’s world, but male sexuality is preoccupied with sexual contest. This biological drive can be externalized into plenty of abstract aims – work, wealth, exercise – but they come down to libido. That we use the term, “Just jacking off” to define someone not seriously motivated to succeed is not a coincidence.
Back in the days of yore – and we’re talking cave-painting days – this obsession of the aggressive male with female sexuality manifest itself as Goddess worship. Again, not a coincidence that our earliest civilizations crafted phalluses, vaginas and voluptuous female forms when they were first inspired to create objects of reverence. But as civilizations cohered and collective male ego swelled, that sexual obsession inverted: Men began treating women less like holy objects, and more like holes. Like property. Evidence of this abounds, but I’ll name a few from classical civilizations: The shift from Great Goddess worship to a supreme – and very slutty – male deity, Zeus, in the Mediterranean. The classification of women as property among Middle Eastern tribes, as in the Tenth Commandment. The institution of numerous female body deformation customs, from infibulation in Africa to clitordectomy in the Middle East to foot-binding in China.
So what was the shift? It’s hard to say, but until the industrial era, seeing women as weak and instituting customs to prove it was the norm. I would argue that it was resources that tipped the scale – ultimately, it was better for the economy if women had more power to wield cash and the vote. Societies where this isn’t the case tend to have dismal economies, given that they have a literally captive population denied to the work force. But whatever changed it economically, we’re still trying to figure it out culturally.
We still steep our culture in sexualized females, from ‘Girls Gone Wild’ to Vogue to pornography. We still criminalize prostitution – a fact that may make someone think, “Yeah, well, so? Of course”, but makes absolutely no sense if we accept the premise that women can do what they want with their bodies. And whereas in some professional sectors it may even be slightly easier for a woman to succeed, in many – particularly big business, whether it’s oil or the film industry – it is fiercely difficult. And, to bring it back to your point, we make a homicidal woman into a freak. We are still uncomfortable with female soldiers after all, even though women warriors date back to the dawn of civilization.
All that oppression of women has its origin in the insecure male urge to control what he desires, manifest in perverse collective.
Do you think it is harder for a judge to be lenient on a man accused of something the judge himself feels capable of committing?
I think it’s quite the opposite. I think it’s easier for a judge to be lenient on a defendant accused of something he is capable of.
There is the adage about “We hate the evils we see in ourselves,” but it doesn’t apply to sentencing. In sentencing, considering the volume of cases that the judge sees, it comes down to sympathy rather than self-loathing. The more the judge identifies with a suspect, the less likely he or she is to harshly punish them. Instead, he or she forms opinions on the case within the dynamic of his or her own redemption.
Case in point, the justice system of the South as it’s been related to me. I’m in regular contact with people from the South who’ve had brushes with the justice system, and those stories suggest that bias is in full-effect. Every demographic step between a judge and a defendant increases the harshness of the sentence. It’s a very basic mentality – David Wong, a brilliant writer for Cracked.com – calls it “the monkey sphere,” a reference to a test done on primates that determined there is a biological limit for profound compassion; a “sphere” of people we identify with. That identification may not come from qualities like gender or race or politics. But the key element is that identification.
We are far more lenient when it comes to condemning ourselves than when it comes to sentencing those that are strange to us.
What drew you to writing, and noir writing in particular?
I was always energetic and introspective – not to mention self-indulgent – but it was my childhood that compels me to apply those qualities to writing. My mother took ill with cancer very early in my life, and it was deemed terminal. It was by will, grit, fortune, positivity and the phenomenal aptitude of my father to manage a family in perpetual catastrophe that the terminal nature was delayed over a decade.
It’s a direct result of that experience that made me want to be a writer on dark subjects. It changed me from introspective to introverted, seeking refuge in books, particularly fantastic stories and tales of extremes. It gave me a fascination with suffering and with overcoming suffering. It fostered in me a fascination with how people – particularly women – endure and prevail over hardship. It developed an aptitude to see beneath the veneer of happiness or woe to the underlying causes beneath, considering I had witnessed my fair share of false smiles, agonizing accommodation and complicated compromise. And it instilled in me an overriding desire to engage these forces and to express them to others so that they could better engage with them too.
As I said earlier, I didn’t always write noir. I wrote horror stories, dark fantasies, gritty superhero sagas and tales of people swept up in warfare. Discovering that my outlook and expression fit so well with the noir subgenre was practically accident. I had written part of the Bella Vista mythology that Pamila Payne dedicates herself to – a series of stories set in a haunted motel in rural Texas run by Mafioso – back in the early ’00s. Last year, Pamila told me about Paul Brazill, and his dynamic participation in the ‘net noir scene inspired me to get involved. It was because of Pamila and Paul that I came to a real habitat for my writing to grow.
I grew up in the shade, so I’m at home in noir. Thanks for letting me bring that to light.
Thank you, Matt for giving a wonderfully in depth and stimulating interview. Good luck with your novel.
Filed under: Interviews
Most of you will know his name.
Salvatore Buttaci is a retired English teacher who has been writing since childhood. His first published work, an essay entitled “Presidential Timber,” appeared in the Sunday New York News when he was sixteen. Since then his poems, letters, short stories, and articles have been widely published in The New York Times, Newsday, U.S.A. Today, The Writer, Cats Magazine, and elsewhere in America and overseas.
He has lectured on Sicilian-American pride and conducted poetry workshops and readings.
Sal is professional and friendly and one of the most popular writers on the net, for a good reason. He tells great stories that are human and real and he is a kind and supportive friend.
If you haven’t read his wonderful collection of stories ‘Flashing My Shorts’, go and buy a copy now. Here, at All Things That Matter Press , at The Poem Factory, or at Sal’s WordPress and Blogspot sites.
And while you’re at it, have a look at Sal’s chapbook ‘Boy on a Swing’. It’s over at Big Table Publishing.
Sal met me at The Slaughterhouse and we talked about politics, writing, Italy and food.
Tell us about ‘Flashing My Shorts’.
The title came first. Flashing My Shorts sounded like a good attention-getter for prospective book buyers. Next, the cover came to me: men’s boxer shorts strung on a clothesline between two buildings. All I needed now were the 164 short-short stories to fill the pages!
Nancy Shrader, a poet friend of mine, suggested I contact her publisher, All Things That Matter Press. The company had published two of her haiku collections. When I did, it was with my own poetry collection in mind. ATTMP Phil Harris wasn’t interested, so I presented him with my idea for a flash-fiction book. I sent him a few quick writes. He liked them and asked for about 160 more!
Flashing My Shorts is the kind of book I myself enjoy reading. None of the 164 stories exceeds 1,000 words, a maximum of three pages, and some are no longer than 100 words. They run the gamut from humor to horror and everything in between. It’s the kind of book a reader can take anywhere, catching a story or two or three in the cafeteria line, the checkout line, at a red light, in the john. As I mentioned, anywhere. Like patrons at a smorgasbord, who can taste a little of this fine dish and a little of that, readers of my book can do the same. I’ve had several purchasers of my book tell me they have read my book several times. Based on their comments and many other positive ones at Amazon.com, I would say the book is being well received.
Here is a sample story:
“So it wasn’t enough those years we spent pulling the wool over each other’s eyes, we had to meet up here and share the same damn fiery pit,” Josef Stalin says with a pit soul’s usual malodorous brimstone breath.
“I just needed a little time, a few more victories,” says Hitler, “less ass smoochers telling me what they thought I wanted to hear! Dictating is not as easy as it looked.”
“Of course, Herr Head! You could’ve ruled the world like the old Caesars with their Pax Romana bull crap in one hand, and a sharp dagger in the other!”
“You sack of horse dung, I wrote Mein Kampf!”
The two old warriors, genocidal megalomaniacs, whose demise gifted the world some respite from terror, sit eternally at lakeside chatting, hurling diatribes, revising history, comparing moustaches, arguing who killed more undesirables, and dipping assless-naked in Satan’s largest Lake of Fire.
As a Sicilian and an American citizen do you share Sicily’s feelings about Mussolini?
Truth is, Benito Mussolini had those who supported his fascist regime and those who opposed it. My paternal uncle Giovanni Buttaci was a staunch supporter and my maternal uncle Francesco Amico was a member of the opposing party, the Christian Democrats.
To add to this dichotomy, a good number of those who loved “Il Duce,” learned to quietly distance themselves from him when his alliance with Hitler became too friendly. In fact, all Sicilians will admit Mussolini’s downfall can be attributed to this dictatorial alliance. When he accepted Hitler’s Jewish Solution and many Italian Jews were deported to concentration camps, it became quite apparent that Mussolini was not the benevolent Caesar he pretended to be. His was a pick-and-choose kind of nationalism that favored Christians and condemned Jews.
As for me, an American who loves freedom, I can only say that Sicily throughout its history has been conquered by no less than thirteen great powers, including the fascist Mussolini. The Sicilian people culled from the invaders all that was good (poetry, mathematics, and agriculture, to name a few) and learned to forget what was detrimental to their own survival.
Friedrich Nietzsche visited Sicily and wrote that behind the brightest noon day sun lies the darkest mystery. What do you think of this comment on Sicily?
Nietzsche was himself one of the mystery men of his time! We’ve all heard of his philosophy, his call to humanity that “God is dead,” so rise up, divest yourselves of morality and become the superman you were meant to be. For him, acquisition of power was a stronger human need than the practice of morality. Mankind should live separate lives, apart from a world he considered “in ruins.”
A year before he began writing Thus Spake Zarathustra, for three weeks he visited Sicily, the island of which Frederick II (1194 – 1250), King of Sicily, said, “If God had seen Sicily, he would have made it the true Jerusalem.”
Nietzsche, who was born in Prussia, did a lot of traveling during his life. Sicily was one of his favorite stops, as were cities in Italy and Switzerland. What did he find compelling about Sicily? For one thing, its people had been victims of countless invasions and yet seemed resilient enough to go on with their lives. Perhaps the mystery he alludes to is peculiar to the Sicilian people: to suffer in silence, to keep hidden, from all but their own families, the injustices hurled against them. And it could have been to Nietzsche that here was an island where the poor toiled away in often fallow fields, and yet they rose above it all. He might have marveled how that bright noonday sun blinded all who came to Sicily from seeing into the heart of its people. Being a philosopher, Nietzsche spent his life incessantly delving into life’s mysteries, which no doubt led to his mental breakdown and, a decade later, his death. Many others besides Nietzsche have been awed by Sicily’s dark mysteries.
Thinking of the popularity of a series like The Sopranos, do you think that Italian Americans are stereotyped in contemporary drama and what do you see as the remedy to that?
The Sopranos, as well as the current TV travesty, New Jersey Shore, and the myriad films depicting Italian Americans as connected members of the Mafia, have done inestimable harm to our ethnicity. One might argue that these media portrayals should not to be taken seriously, that those slighted Italian Americans, who rant and rave about how detrimental these shows are, ought to lighten up, see these gangster figures as mere caricatures, not monsters on the wall, innocent caricatures made by simple hand movements meant to entertain viewers, not insult them. I strongly disagree.
Viewers in metropolitan areas where the Italian American population is substantial might shrug off this kind of media ethnic bias as comical but not rooted in truth, but there are those viewers who have never in their entire lives seen an Italian American up close, and don’t want to. Once hearing the telltale vowel at the end of his last name, they surmise the man is dangerous. When I lived in New Jersey, perhaps non-Italian Americans might have wondered if there was a Mafioso in the Buttaci woodpile, but where we now live in West Virginia, some have come right out and asked!
What most disturbs me is this: so many Italian Americans see nothing wrong with being typecast as Mafiosi. They patronize the viewing of the shows. They sit back on their living-room couches and laugh raucously when Paulie Walnuts says something one might not expect from such a meticulously dressed man. They are unaware that the media has posted on the rear ends of all Italian Americans, their supporters as well, a sign that reads, “Kick my ass. I’m Italian.” As a consequence, Italian American groups lack the numbers with which to make this fight against ethnic bias viable enough to get results. There is dissension in our ranks. We become our own worst enemy. We do not have that solidarity which the Jews, the Hispanics, and the African Americans have and are not afraid to use to their rightful benefit. Until Italian Americans see the light, there will be no solution to this injustice.
Those who fight the good fight media discrimination against Italian Americans will continue to do so. They will go on seeing more of these put-down shows televising throughout America. More products, Italian and otherwise, will be sold within the context of mafia behavior like “I’ll break your legs if you don’t run out and buy such-and-such.” Or “Wanna get whacked? Eat our competitor’s hamburger!”
I am editing a novel I wrote called Carmelu the Sicilian, my small part in fighting media bias. When it’s done, I will try to interest a publisher to help me reach the Italian American community in particular and everyone else in general. In my book Carmelu Saccomanni, born in Sicily, immigrates to America and through a series of events makes it to Hollywood and becomes a movie star. The films he is most famous for are gangster movies. They earn him fame and fortune, but then when things go wrong, he returns to live out his days in Sicily. When his epiphany comes, he decides in his old age to stand up to the media bias of which he was once a part. He does so non-violently. Carmelu becomes the hero of Italians everywhere.
How would you like to be perceived as a writer?
Once somebody asked me at a Borders poetry reading if I considered myself a poet. I had been reading from one of my collections called Promising the Moon. I told her I preferred being called “a guy who writes poems.” Calling oneself a “poet” always struck me as bordering on pomposity. Millions of people write poems. Are we all poets? To me, “poet” is a designation reserved for the master guys and gals who wrote and write poetry. And yet I don’t extend that to, let’s say, fiction writer or even novelist. I suppose you can tell how highly I place poetry on the literature ladder!
I would like people to consider me a writer worth reading. I’ve worked hard learning the writing craft, as well as teaching it on all levels of education: elementary school right on through college. Writing has been my passion, the inner urge I satisfy daily. I’ve conducted writing workshops and lectured on writing subjects. I believe words have the power to change minds, elevate readers, elicit emotion, offer vicarious thrills, and express oftentimes mutual feelings of writer and reader. A student of mine in seventh grade once said to me, “Nobody understands me except this book!”
Because I believe in my writings, I work hard to promote them. Right now it’s my new book, Flashing My Shorts, that has my nearly full attention. Second to that, I am editing a follow-up collection of short-short fiction. The question of whether or not readers will perceive me as I hope they will can only be answered in the reading of my work. At the expense of sounding somewhat big-headed, I consider myself an entertaining writer whose stories are worth the price of the book. I don’t lock myself into writing only one type of story to the exclusion of others. I have as much fun writing humor as I do horror. I like to write character-driven stories and plot-driven ones. To see a character come to life on a page is thrilling to me.
How I want to be perceived as a writer? A guy who takes the writing craft seriously, pens the best he can, is unafraid of rewrites and criticism, and will go on writing for as long as God wants me to!
What do you think it is about the poetry of Lorca that still appeals and do you think that poetry is music without song?
Poetry is written all over the world, but in my estimation, no one writes better, more powerful poems than the Spanish-speaking poets. I say that because they have a handle on maximum use of the metaphor and simile. They know how to inject into their lines top-notch imagery, a definite requirement for excellent poetry. I find this quality to a lesser degree with Italian poets, but their language is a song while the Spanish language is often a dirge. Even when it speaks of joy, there is a hint of sorrow. And they are unafraid to give voice to flowers or wings to that which cannot fly.
Lorca is a favorite of mine because his writings, like those of Vallejo and Neruda, come directly from the heart. I can see the words shake off the afterbirth as the poet in honest language delivers them to the white page. When we read Lorca, our own hearts are made lighter. The writing of the poem and the reading of the poem are heart-generated and heart-welcomed. The two acts are joined somehow. The reader becomes privy to the heart secrets of Lorca and is uplifted. What greater way to fill passing time!
I think poetry goes beyond music. It is music in its highest form. A college professor who taught creative writing once told the class, “A poem holds more power in its brevity than any book. It may unleash itself as a song, dance across the page in a kind of choreographed rhythm, but it reality it is a small miracle of words taking their rightful places and shouting its observations to the world.”
How did you find the transition from New Jersey to West Virginia?
When I was sixteen, my brother Alphonse and his new bride Celia Ann took me to visit her parents in Crab Orchard, West Virginia. I was a city boy from Lyndhurst, New Jersey. I had never seen green mountains or slept with a blanket in late August. I had never walked down a street and greeted strangers, passing the time of day with them in friendly conversation. I loved this mountain state so much I made one of the few predictions in my life that came true: “One day I’ll be living here!”
Except for a year in Sicily when I graduated from college, I spent most of my life in New York and New Jersey. True, I also lived in Miami and Detroit, but only for very short periods of time, surely not long enough to call them home. My prediction notwithstanding, I felt certain I’d live out my days in New Jersey. Like my sister-in-law Celia Ann, Sharon, prior to our marriage, had lived in West Virginia. When I retired in July 2007, she was very surprised when I told her I wanted to move to West Virginia. Had I said, Palermo, Sicily, she could not have been more surprised.
We are very happy in Princeton, West Virginia. We’ve become active in our church. We’ve made a lot of friends. Of course, I miss the family I left behind in New Jersey: my mother, two sisters, cousins, friends, and colleagues, but not New Jersey, persae. At least in Bergen County where Sharon and I lived, no one was friendly. Everyone seemed to be rushing through their lives with no time to spare for a little laughter. Perhaps because of the diversity of religions in our New Jersey area, we rarely heard the mention of Jesus, whereas here in Princeton, our daily newspaper posts on its pages a Bible quote, and folks are not afraid to shout out “Praise the Lord!“
We’ve made six visits back since living here, but it’s always the return trip we prefer.
There has been a shift of power recently in Sicily and Italy with the capture of Bernardo Provenzano, known as the capo di tutti capi after Berlusconi’s fall from power. Prior to him Giulio Andreotti revealed before the Chamber of Deputies the existence of Operazione Gladio, a secret anti-communist structure. To what extent do you think the power shift is part of an alignment towards the centre in Italian politics and do you believe this is possible given the range of Berlusconi’s media empire?
Silvio Berlusconi, despite what many critics will argue, is like the good man you cannot keep down. Despite scandal and accusations that he’s been underhanded in his fight against corruption, he seems to becoming a fixture in Italian politics. Everyone is familiar with the absurd number of governments Italy has had since post-World War II when De Gasperi served as Italy’s first prime minister. Since 1946, there have been about 80 elections for that post! Berlusconi’s party, named Forza Italia, after the cry of his own soccer team, AC Milan, “Go Italy!“ which Berlusconi owns has now morphed into The People of Freedom in Berlusconi’s most recent successful bid for power.
A man of the right, albeit center, he is the enemy of Communism and by whatever means, he does what he can to change the fact that Italy has a huge Communist segment of the over-all population. His enemies insist that Mussolini too was a rightist and that Berlusconi, with his wealth in the billions, his control of three TV stations, his underhandedness in following his agendas, cannot be trusted to lead Italy. Many of his businesses, they claim, are tainted with Mafia involvement, and despite Berlusconi’s grandstand play at bringing down the infamous Mafiosi Bernardo Provenzano, the prime minister is no better than him or any of his henchmen.
My feeling is that Italians do not regard Berlusconi as their savior. The man has too much money! That alone makes him suspect. Moreover, he’s been at the center of too many scandals, and like former President George W. Bush, he closes his eyes to greedy Big Business that holds out its hands for more and more tax relief at the expense of the middle class. I suspect he will serve out his term and fail in any further attempts to recapture such a lofty position in Italian government.
You admire Jack London. His writings are often regarded as examples of Social Darwinism, do you think that the forces of social competition are any fewer today?
Social Darwinism was best illustrated by Hitler’s Nazism, which attempted to elevate the Aryans to the top rung of the social ladder while murdering the millions whom he designated as inferior. And, of course, genocide has decimated other populations in recent memory in Rwanda, Iraq, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Sudan.
We saw Mussolini try to re-establish Italy as the new Roman Empire, beginning with an “Italy-for-Italians-Only” policy which he took to absurd lengths as when he ordered the British department store in Italy to change its name from “Standard” to “Standa.”
In America we now witness the continued growth of neo-Nazi groups like the White Aryan Brotherhood whose mission is to white-wash the nation.
I believe what encourages this national chavinism in America today is the rampant influx of millions entering America illegally, most from Mexico. States like Arizona and several others who have taken a stand against this illegal practice have been admonished by many, starting with the federal government, because it violates the nation’s sense of tolerance for diverse peoples. It is also because the practice has been allowed to go on for so long, there seems no solution in sight. Either a nation closes its eyes to it or they pass laws to either deport illegal aliens or require stringent requirements to remain here and possibly earn citizenship.
We Americans need to keep in mind that the causes that toppled the 500-year Roman Empire are being shared now within our own recent history! Constant wars, natural disasters, decline in morality, failing economy, political corruption, unemployment, and invasions from those who entered the empire illegally!
What is the secret ingredient in Tiramisu?
The best Tiramisu I ever ate was in Agrigento, Sicily, at a sweets shop down the road apiece from the Grecian temples. What made it so good, according to the waiter who brought it to our table and to me who ate it, was the Marsala wine and the mascarpone cheese. In American restaurants they substitute rum for the Marsala wine.
Sal, thank you for giving such an in-depth and engaging interview, it’s been great having you at The Slaughterhouse.
Filed under: Interviews
Hilary is a professional journalist and novelist. She writes dark, disturbing fiction often involving a glamorous lifestyle that is rotten at the core. She delves into her characters’ psyches with the precision of a surgeon. Her debut novel, THE DAMAGE DONE, will be published on September 28, 2010 by Forge.
Her stories have appeared in A Twist of Noir, Spinetingler, Crimefactory, Needle, Thuglit, and Beat to a Pulp, among others. Her story “Insatiable” won the 2010 Spinetingler Award for Best Short Story. She is also the author of 18 travel guidebooks for Frommer’s. Originally from Toronto, she has lived in New York since October 2001. Her articles have appeared in magazines in the U.S. and Canada, including, Canadian Living and Reader’s Digest. For more about her work, check out hilarydavidson.com and thedamagedone.net.
She met me at The Slaughterhouse. I showed her the Christian Lacroix room and the cellar.
She complimented me on the wine list and asked for a Chateau d’Yquem.
Naturally, I poured the drinks.
We talked about the criminal mind and Kafka, we talked about gender conditioning and a patriarchal legal system.
Deep cruelty often lurks behind an ostentatious designer lifestyle in your stories. Do you think that the image people portray in their lives in terms of acquisitions and lifestyle is a mechanism to hide their motives and shadows?
I think that ostentatious consumerist lifestyle can serve as camouflage for all sorts of reptilian characters. What fascinates me is the distance between the image that a person projects on the surface and what’s really going on under his or her skin. To some extent, that distance exists in everyone, and it’s not inherently sinister. But in a villain, the distance is vast and creates a great deal of tension. I don’t think that the dark characters I write about would view themselves as villains, but they consciously try to manipulate others’ perceptions of them, and they use money and gifts to do that. To me, a great villain is a great seducer.
If one considers that political influence relies on propaganda, parallels may be drawn between this and the verbal manipulation of a seducer. What does seduction mean to you within the differing perceptions of the sexes and their need for power, and do you think that a woman kills differently to a man?
The parallel between political propaganda and verbal manipulation is a strong one, because both are based on telling people what they want to hear. A great seducer knows what their mark wants, and what their weaknesses are. That’s true of both sexes. Mr. Kennett, the narrator of “Insatiable,” isn’t what you might think of as a seducer — he’s old and fat — but he knows his beautiful wife’s weaknesses and he is relentless in exploiting them. Desiree in “Fetish” looks like a classic noir seductress, but it’s not her beauty that she uses to manipulate her father, it’s his guilt. She gives him the chance to play the hero, and that’s something he can’t resist. Seduction is usually understood to be purely sexual, but its Latin root means to lead astray. Sex may be part of the seduction, but the real hook is psychological.
I’m fascinated by the psychology of murder, and the question of whether there are differences between why men and women kill. The Victorian idea of women having finer feelings than men has always bothered me. If you relegate half the population to the domestic sphere, you certainly reduce their opportunities to murder, but their violent, angry feelings just get channeled in other directions. I think that women are just as predatory and power-hungry as men. In an equal-opportunity world, men and women have the same basic reasons for killing: anger, jealousy, revenge. But many people are still shocked by women who kill. The Amy Bishop case is a perfect example. Bishop is a Harvard-educated neuroscientist who gunned down six of her colleagues at the University of Alabama after she was denied tenure. After her arrest, the police went through her background and discovered that she had committed other crimes, including killing her younger brother when she was 21. At the time, the brother’s death was ruled accidental, even though Bishop fired a shotgun at him. The fact that she went free, and that there was never a full investigation into her brother’s death, suggests to me that many people still can’t believe that a woman could be a cold-blooded killer.
If the exploitation of a patriarchal judicial system by women is connected to the history of male fear of female sexuality, to what extent do you see mythology and religion as helping female killers get away with murder?
That’s a complicated question because, historically, when you think of women who’ve bucked the sexual norms of their societies, they’ve been punished very harshly. But the other side of the coin is that most societies are reluctant to view women — made weak by God and nature — as capable of murder. Women were supposed to be warm and nurturing, not calculating killers. If that’s your point of view, it’s almost unimaginable that a woman could choose to kill. You know that children’s rhyme about Lizzie Borden?
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks
And when she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one
Well, Lizzie Borden was acquitted of murder by a jury, even though she didn’t even testify in her own defense. And she inherited quite a lot of money thanks to the murders.
There are two novels I love that take historical cases of women accused of murder and explore what might have happened. One is Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, which tells the story of Grace Marks, a 16-year-old servant who was convicted of murdering her employer and his mistress. This happened in Markham, Ontario, just north of what’s now Toronto, in 1843. Marks was convicted and sentenced to death, but her sentence was commuted by a judge who just couldn’t believe that such a lovely girl could do such a horrible thing. Atwood does a brilliant job of portraying Marks as a sly manipulator while leaving open the question of what really happened at the scene.
The other novel is Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep, which is loosely based on Winnie Ruth Judd, the notorious “trunk murderess” convicted of killing a roommate in Arizona in 1931. The press labeled Judd “the Blonde Butcher,” and it’s clear that she was sleeping with a married man. Was she a murderer? That question will probably be open forever, but Abbott does a spectacular job of examining the available evidence and re-imagining what really happened at the crime scene.
Virago Press brought out a lot of novels covering the theme of women killers in Victorian Britain getting away with murder because the patriarchal psyche had sentimentalised them as part of its own defence structure, and that was implicit within the judicial system, in other words, judges didn’t believe women were capable of killing. ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ by Mary Braddon covers a lot of the same ground, well worth reading.
Name an experience that changed your life and influenced your writing.
Travel has changed my life and influenced my work more than anything else. I have a history of taking a trip and then doing something that saner people might consider impulsive. For example, I went to Thailand when I was on staff at a magazine in Toronto and came home determined to quit and become a freelance writer. But in terms of influencing my writing, a trip I took to Prague roughly four years ago had a huge impact. At the time, I was doing well as a freelance journalist, writing travel guidebooks for Frommer’s and articles for magazines. But I was bored, churning out formulaic books and articles that had a limited shelf life. I wanted to write fiction, but I’d started working on several different novels and tossed them aside after writing anywhere from four to ten chapters. I had ideas, but no commitment to finishing anything. I was hopeless at outlining, so I’d get to a point where I had no idea what was supposed to happen next. And I had a voice in my head that would say things like “Stop wasting your time. No one’s going to read that!”
Visiting Prague was interesting, because everywhere you go, there are reminders of Franz Kafka. He’s one of my favorite writers, and I loved being able to explore his city and hear strange stories about him, like how he was obsessed with the hands on the statue of St. Barbara on the Charles Bridge. But there was one thing I learned about Kafka that shocked me, which was that he’d asked a friend to destroy his unpublished work when he died. The only reason we have The Trial and The Castle is because his friend ignored his wishes. Apparently Kafka had a voice in his head that told him he was wasting his time, too. There was something almost inexpressibly sad about that to me. At the same time, it was inspiring that he’d heard that voice and continued writing fiction anyway. When I came home, it definitely made it easier to tell that voice to shut the hell up.
Thankfully Max Brod chose to ignore his request. His lover, Dora Diamant, partially executed his wishes, secretly keeping up to 20 notebooks and 35 letters until they were confiscated by the Gestapo in 1933. An ongoing international search is being conducted for these missing Kafka papers.
In ‘The Trial’, Kafka foresaw the bureaucratic jungle we have inherited. To what extent do you think we are living in the era of the rise of the technocrats and do you believe this generates the kind of data paranoia that is fertile territory for noir writing?
That’s such an intriguing question, because we’re living in an era in which data about individuals is constantly being mined. In the US, your credit card company knows all sorts of details about you and is allowed to sell much of that information to other companies. If you live in a city, you’re used to cameras watching you when you’re on the street or on the subway. A few weeks after 9/11, the Patriot Act was passed in the US, allowing the government to collect information about people in ways that it hadn’t been able to before — not legally, anyway. People have also voluntarily handed over all kinds of personal information on sites like Facebook, and some of them have realized that those sites are using that information in ways they never expected. For a few years there, people had the idea that they could be anonymous online, but I think that illusion is dissipating.
Yet, while all of this information is being collected about people, there’s also a tremendous amount of identity fraud going on. To me, this is a kind of tragic gift: it’s bad for society, but great for a noir writer. Identity theft is viewed as a modern plague, but if you look at classic noir fiction, identity fraud has played a major role in some of the best books in the genre. Think of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters or Dorothy Hughes’s In a Lonely Place or Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely — all of those great novels hinge on stolen or faked identities. In a lot of noir fiction, identity is a fluid concept, because you’re never really sure of who or what you’re dealing with.
Because identity theft is an important issue in my novel, The Damage Done, I did a lot of research about it. What I really wanted to know was, how far could you realistically go in stealing another person’s identity? Partly, I was inspired by several friends and relatives who’ve been victims of identity fraud. What I found scared me, because US banks and stores and credit-card companies and other lenders aren’t doing much of anything to prevent fraud. They’ve done their cost-benefit analysis, and they’ve decided that it would be too expensive to prevent, so they just clean up the messes after they happen. I’ve read a lot of fraud reports that are almost comically ridiculous. There are people who look nothing like the person they’re impersonating, yet they still get away with using their photo IDs. When you read about the issue, it’s mind-boggling. But it’s certainly interesting territory to mine in fiction.
You have travelled extensively and you write about food and nutrition. What does being a Canadian mean to you and to what extent do you think that there is a pathology of eating locked within the criminal psyche?
I’m a dual citizen of Canada and the US, but I grew up in Toronto. Canadians tend to be curious about the rest of the world and less curious about their own country… or maybe that’s just me. When I lived in Canada, I was interested in traveling only outside of its borders, and I went everywhere from Ireland to Italy and from Russia to Thailand.
After I moved to New York in October 2001, I became interested in seeing Canada, too, and I visited places like Newfoundland and New Brunswick and British Columbia for the first time.
My favorite definition of what it means to be Canadian is from Pierre Berton, who said, “A true Canadian is one who can make love in a canoe without tipping.” If that’s true, there aren’t many true Canadians. I have my own definition, based on an exchange I had recently with Jedidiah Ayres. Jed writes and reviews crime fiction, and he did a “Ransom Notes” column for Barnes & Noble about Canadian crime fiction. He said great things about the very talented John McFetridge, but he couldn’t think of any other criminally minded Canadian authors. I sent him a bunch of names, then discovered that Sandra Ruttan, who’s also Canadian, did the same thing. It’s a long list — Sean Chercover, Rick Mofina, Linda L. Richards, Linwood Barclay, just to scratch the surface — but the funny thing was that we felt compelled to send names. A true Canadian takes pleasure in pointing out other Canadians. We may be polite, but we’re proud.
I’ve written so much about travel and food in guidebooks and articles, and some of that carries over into my fiction. Travel has in a big way. I’m working on my second novel right now, and it’s set in Peru, which I’ve written about before in short stories. Food is interesting to write about because it can be connected to a host of emotional and psychological issues. My first published story, “Anniversary” in Thuglit, features a man who is making dinner for the woman he loves. A brief excerpt:
“He had always loved cooking for the discipline and precision it demanded, but tonight he was too unsettled to take pleasure from it. He threw the two lobsters into the pot, put the lid on, and immediately felt guilty. When he cooked a lobster he normally took the time to hypnotize it first, a trick he’d learned from his father. They like the hot water, his father had told him. He was old enough to know that wasn’t actually true, but he held on to the custom of rubbing the space between their antennae to lull them into accepting their fate. There was no sense in being unnecessarily cruel, not to an animal, anyway.”
That gives you kind of a snapshot into the psychology of the character. At least, I hope it does. Using food in this way is a kind of shorthand.
Have you ever known someone as pathological as one of your killers?
Several of my darker characters are loosely based on people I’ve met. I should explain that I don’t usually write about serial killers or gangsters or people who need to be violent in their line of work. I don’t know anyone like that. The dark characters I write about seem, at first glance, to be normal people — they have homes and jobs and, often, families. But there’s something off about them. They might be obsessive or narcissistic or controlling or immature. They are not inherently evil, but under certain circumstances, they’re capable of impulsively doing evil.
I mentioned earlier that I’m intrigued by the difference between the surface of a person, and what goes on underneath. I think if those two things diverge too much, that brings a person to their breaking point, and what’s bubbling under the surface boils over and cracks the veneer. Tom in “Good Bones,” which Crimefactory published, would be a perfect example. He’s a nice enough guy on the surface, but there’s so much rage and bitterness underneath, and when his life falls apart, he discovers what he’s truly capable of.
The one trait that the sociopaths I’ve met in real life have in common is that they feel sorry for themselves. It doesn’t matter what they do, they can manage to justify their behavior in their own minds and feel wronged by others at the same time. I always think about this when I’m writing a villain. I work out how they justify their own actions to themselves. One of the most horrible, irredeemable characters I’ve ever written is Mr. Kennett in “Insatiable,” and he spends the entire story feeling sorry for himself. The worst villains see themselves as victims.
Much of what we have talked about has to do with the pathology of power. To what extent do you think the sexes need different kinds of power and do you agree with Jonathan Swift’s observation that men are grateful to the degree they are vengeful?
I don’t think that the power men and women strive for has ever really been different — but in the past they used radically different means to get power, and that was a fact born out of necessity. Swift is another writer I love, and I agree with his comment, harsh as it may seem. Gratitude is something that we tend to think of as a positive feeling, but there’s this bit of poison in it, too. When a person is deeply in another’s debt, it can create resentment that festers into a desire for revenge. That dynamic is so intriguingly twisted, and it’s something I write about in The Damage Done. The book’s main character, Lily, and her sister, Claudia, have had a rough start in life — their father died when they were young, and their mother was an alcoholic and an abuser. But Lily has grown up to be a successful writer, while Claudia is a drug addict and petty criminal. Lily’s attempts at taking care of her sister have led to a situation where Claudia depends on her yet loathes her. As a writer, it was rich territory to explore, but there’s also something absolutely heartbreaking about it.
How would you like to be perceived as a writer?
I feel like I have two distinct identities as a writer, at least at the moment. On the one hand, I’m still working in journalism, and I have an earnest desire to write things that will help people. That’s why I set up a website called the Gluten-Free Guidebook in March 2008. I want people to eat well, and travel well. I want people who read my journalism to trust me.
With my fiction, I’m being provocative, and I hope I’m being entertaining. When Steve Weddle read “The Black Widow Club” — it’s in the first issue of Needle, the magazine he created — he wrote me a note about how much he enjoyed it, but said he would never, ever let me buy him a drink. Given what happens in that story, I can’t blame him. When people see my name on a story or a book, I want them to know they’re in for a hell of a ride.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone has given you about writing?
When I came back from that trip to Prague, I went to a six-hour book-publishing workshop the next day. I hadn’t planned to attend because I figured I’d be jet-lagged, but I decided at the last minute to do it and, luckily for me, there was one slot open. The instructor, Susan Shapiro, had written a memoir about drug addiction called Lighting Up, and I’d loved the book. She was an amazing instructor, and my favorite thing that she said was “Write about your obsessions.” She made me think about what my obsessions really are, aside from books: psychology, travel, film noir, graveyards, Gothic anything, vintage. Then she made me think about how to use them in my writing. That was something I’d struggled with in journalism — I was writing what my clients wanted, and I’d sneak in references to the things that really interested me. With fiction, it’s the other way around. The funny thing is that so many other people share my obsessions. With travel or film noir, that’s easy to understand, but graveyards? That’s been a very happy surprise.
Thank you for giving an incisive and profound interview Hilary. I look forward to reading ‘The Damage Done.’
Filed under: Interviews
Steve Weddle’s name is well known to anyone interested in noir writing.
Needle magazine is at the top of the tree in terms of quality and vision and Steve’s Channel Noir is a must see if you like crime writing in any shape or form.
Steve, a former English professor, graduated with an MFA in poetry from Louisiana State University. He now works for a newspaper group in Virginia and writes fiction.
He gave me a fascinating interview, in which we talked poetry, crime, politics and noir.
One weeknight I was sitting on the couch reading Crimespree Magazine. Of course I loved the reviews and interviews and all the news in there, but I wanted more fiction. Same thing with Mystery Scene Magazine. Most of the short fiction I was reading was online. Plots with Guns. Crimefactory. Beat To A Pulp. Twist of Noir. Pulp Pusher. Thug Lit. Thrilling Detective. Authors’ sites. And on an on.
To me, there seemed to be a bit of a disconnect. You could read about the writers in print, but you couldn’t read them in print. Not most of the folks I was reading, anyway.
And then there are the online flash challenges. A thousand words online. Hop from one site to another, reading along a theme, discovering authors I’d never heard of. Great stuff.
All of that just pissed me off. So much great stuff out there and it’s all over the web, but I can’t sit by my library window, fold it in my hand, and read it. I can’t take the stories out on the back deck and read them.
This year I turn 40. I’m not ancient. And I have a decent understanding of this world web the kids are talking about. But I like to have a collection in my hand, ink on paper, where I can read stuff and bookmark stuff and underline stuff and pass it off to a friend and say “read this.” Something I can enjoy at the lunch table. Unroll at the soccer game. And I wanted more people to read all these cool authors I’ve been reading. I wanted to put some of these great writers together, to make sure as many people as possible could see how great they are. You can get lost on the internet, you know? Hopping around from site to site. You bet there’s some great stuff out there, but I wanted an ink-on-paper alternative. As much as I love online crime fiction sites, I wanted a collection offline as another outlet.
So I mentioned that on Twitter and people much more talented and smarter than I am said they thought it was a great idea. So I asked some smart people to help, and they did. John Hornor Jacobs brought the artist vision to the thing. We chatted a few times and I told him what I had in mind. We seemed to be in agreement on most things. Then he’d send me some pages, some design. Unbelievably rich stuff. Sure the dude can write, but the eye he has for the look of the journal was just great. And Naomi Johnson and Scott D. Parker were phenomenal in reading the stories and making some suggestions here and there. And Dan O’Shea came in at the tail end and helped work out some kinks.
That’s the inside stuff. On the outside, of course, I asked some talented people to join in on this idea and send in some stories, and they did. In many respects, this was like a bunch of us getting together and just jamming out some tunes. And yet, each person’s own talents — drum solo, Van Halen riffs on the guitar, banshee wails into a reverb mic — ended up turning the show into such a fantastic concert. I was just really pleased with the way the journal turned out. But not just that. The people coming together to produce something — something literary and something lasting — was just so fantastic. From the feedback we’ve gotten, I can tell people were blown away by the stories, which is what it’s all about.
You graduated with an MFA in poetry from Louisiana State University, which poets do you admire and why?
Kenneth Koch. Gregory Corso. Anne Sexton. Chad Rohrbacher. Richard Hugo.
“Traveling Through the Dark” by William Stafford (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/traveling-through-the-dark/) is amazing.
My favorite book of poems is The Never-Ending by Andrew Hudgins. He has a couple of great ones in there. One is called “Praying Drunk” and one is “Heat Lightning in a Time of Drought.”
He has this style, this persona in these that can be deceptive. Kind of an old country guy, a drunk with a history who catches glimpses of that blinding light in the soul of the universe. He also has a poem called “Something Wakes Me Up” about his neighbors who are sawing apart a deer while he listens like a coward.
A poet named Laura Kasischke wrote one in Poetry magazine back in the late 80s. Maybe early 90s. The piece was about cheating on your spouse and thinking about what color to paint the upstairs bathroom. I’ve never read anything else by her, which is a failing of mine, not hers. But this poem has stuck with me. The poem is called “Palm.” (http://compost-hedgie.blogspot.com/2007/03/laura-kasischke-again-wild-brides.html) There’s this line in it that still, I don’t know. Seems stupid to say it “gives me chills.” But I read it and I get kinda shaky for a second and the hairs on my arms stand up. So whatever that is. I’m sure Hudgins or Kasischke would say it with cleverness. It isn’t about cheating on your spouse. It’s about wanting more. Thinking that there has to be more to your life. To life itself. The reader of her palm works through the woman’s life, how the mundane is punctuated with glimpses of blinding light. More than just simple journeys of family vacations. Here’s the line: “this is how the small survive, the way the small have always survived.” You gotta read the poem. I can’t do it justice. I’m like that guy from Star Trek doing the TV commercial saying how your TV can’t show how awesome this new HD TV he’s selling is because your own TV is crap. Well, I can’t explain how cool Kasischke, Stafford, and Hudgins are. I can point you in their directions, though. That’s the best I can do. Maybe it’s enough.
Do you think it is possible to write crime poetry?
Yeah, I can’t see why not. Once we had that meeting and decided this poem stuff didn’t have to rhyme, what the heck, right? Besides, the whole idea that Emily Dickinson is still taught in schools is pretty criminal, isn’t it? So why not crime poetry? From a certain angle, Sylvia Plath’s ARIEL is a book of crime poems, isn’t it?
I think what you want to do with a “crime poem” is the same as with any other poem. Get to that flash you can’t find in prose, some sort of understanding.
Dogrel about a bank heist, um, no thanks. But why can’t you address the human condition with a crime poem as well as with a love poem?
Crime poetry isn’t new. And it wasn’t new when John Milton took a shot at it, either.
Hmmm. Now I want to teach a seminar in the history of crime poetry.
William Blake said that all poets are ‘of the Devil’s Party’ referring to Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. James Lee Burke writes dark Gothic prose that goes into the internal lives of his characters in some depth, do you think that the popularity of crime writing stems from a desire to witness the extreme darkness within the human psyche?
I think the best crime writing comes from the ability to tell an engaging story involving people you care about. And conflict makes the story, moves the story along. Conflict adds friction. Interest. Motivation. You have to have something at stake. Sometimes that involves a victim staked-out in an ant-infested warehouse. Sometimes it’s crooked cops on a stakeout. Sometimes you’re on your way for a steak dinner and you get mugged. Hmm. Maybe that was too many “at stake” jokes. Fine. And I didn’t even get to the vampire crime fiction jokes.
With the idea that you need something at stake, the dark part of the human psyche is present, of course. The physical threat is important — do this or you’re dead — but I’ve heard people say that all crime writing is wish-fulfillment. You know, the people at work are mean to you. You don’t much care for your family. So you read or write about some tough character, someone who would give that mean jerk on the fifth floor what-for. Someone who wouldn’t put up with that crap. I guess there can be some of that in there. You want to read about people who are better than you. More exciting than you. But I think that’s a limited way of looking at things.
Part of the appeal of crime fiction, especially the darker stuff, is to have a neat, little container in which to hold your fears. People like to be scared. Makes them feel alive. We all know this. We talk about it at our “Understanding People for Crime Writers” meetings each Tuesday night at 8.
But people don’t like to be scared, um, in real life. Is that how to put it? I mean, it’s cool and exciting to read about some dude breaking into another dude’s house and tying him up and torturing him to find out where the blackmail photos are hidden. All cool until one night around midnight you hear glass break downstairs in the storage room, a high-pitched shatter on the concrete floor.
We like seeing horror on the evening news (kids, ask your grandparents) every night, but we don’t want it to be too close. And we like to have reasonable violence, as well as contained violence. That’s why crime fiction is such a comfort. Sure, the guy was tortured for the photos, but I don’t have photos, so I won’t be tortured. I’m safe. Kinda like when we hear about someone we know killed herself last week. We want to know why. We want to find a reason that it won’t happen to us. We press and press until we find out the girl was on drugs. Phew. We’re safe. We don’t do the drugs. This can’t happen to us. We can just turn the channel to another news show. Pick up another book about someone almost us, but not quite.
Violence at a distance. We slow down when we pass the three-car wreck on the highway. But we don’t stop.
One of the prevalent themes of crime writing is revenge. Do you think it’s true to say that revenge is lawless justice and if so what does the frequency of its occurrence say about the legal system we have imposed on the chaos we inhabit?
I’m not sure revenge is necessarily either lawless or justice. Revenge is taking action for a wrong. Maybe it’s a punishment. Life in prison can be revenge for murder in that sense. I guess one of the true statements we can make is to say that revenge is, by nature, reactionary. First you have the wrong — perceived or real. Then you have the reaction meant to settle the score — the revenge.
For crime fiction, this takes a conflict and lays out a series of events that must follow. One of the ways in which this can be made exciting is to move the story, the action, outside of the normal path. Cops spend a good deal of time with paperwork. Not so exciting. Before the accused gets to sentencing at the circuit court level, he or she has gone through, and I’m estimating here, probably 482 earlier court appearances. Sure, sometimes this is sexy. More often, it’s rather nap-inducing.
Man kills man. Cops arrest man. Man goes to trial, then prison. Blah. What if the man escapes the cops? What if he takes a family hostage? What if the narrator is one of those people taken hostage? The way the legal system “usually” helps us sleep at night. But those stories don’t keep us up at night, turning from chapter to chapter until we wake up in the morning with the book on the floor.
I’m sure someone smarter than I am could say something clever about how our “frontier” mentality in America informs the content of our fiction. How at some base-level, we all have to create our own order for the world, our own way of dealing with the chaos that surrounds us, that threatens to rips us all apart.
The idea of “lawless justice,” I think, goes back to what I was saying about the contained violence — ordered chaos, if you want. Brutal horrors lined up in alpha-order on library shelves. Yes, we want justice for wrongs that are done. And we like that justice a little messy. Not, of course, too messy.
Do you think that one of the functions of a narrative structure is to impose order on chaos?
You know those late 50s pieces from Coltrane, when he was working with Red Garland and Miles Davis? Before free jazz ruined the world, I mean. Even up to the mid 60s. You’d have a standard and you’d set up the, let’s see, maybe you’d call it a leit motif? The phrase throughout. Something to hold on to. Then the soloist would take off with scales and chords and you’d never know where the heck he’d end up. Then all of a sudden all those pieces start falling right back in and the song is brought around to the standard again. That’s the kind of jazz I like.
I don’t want just a series of notes following along the sheet music, some formulaic path from beginning to end. And I don’t want idiotic honking not tied to any damn thing. I like to have some understanding of what the expectations are when I start. Then take that and go with it.
This is why I like authors who can start with a conventional idea and then take it into new territory. Brad Parks with his reporter novels. Sean Chercover and his PI work. Joelle Charbonneau and her roller rink murder mystery. You get the set-up — the order — and then you can contain that chaos. Otherwise all you’ve got is a mess.
You know that phrase “Expect the unexpected”? I’m sure there are dumber phrases out there, but I can’t think of any right now. Once you expect it, it ain’t so unexpected, right? So I like to have my expectations set early on, whether it be Coltrane’s “Favorite Things” or Hilary Davidson’s short stories. Then I like to have everything break nasty.
Experimental fiction rejects a linear plot in favour of something more random, more evocative of the way the subconscious works, while traditionally crime fiction has followed the sequential route. Do you think it’s possible to write an experimental crime novel?
The poet Richard Hugo was teaching a creative writing class, listening to kids read their work. One of the students was reading his own composition with the line “I want to hold you forever.”
“Hold her forever?” Hugo asked. The kid said, yeah. Forever. Hugo laughed and asked, “What’re you gonna do when you gotta take a leak?”
That’s my favorite line from a poetry class. I only read about that one.
My second favorite line I got in person and this one actually has something to do with what we’re discussing.
One of my classmates at LSU was taking some crap for a poem he’d written. “I was just trying something. You know. An experiment.”
Professor Dave Smith wasn’t happy. “No such thing as an experiment like that. If it works, it’s a poem. Doesn’t work, it’s a failure.”
My favorite reading experience was when a half-dozen of us at LSU worked through FINNEGANS WAKE. We studied Irish history, watched documentaries, read many other Irish novels. We dug through economic theory from Italy. Church rules for Catholics. (I don’t think they call them rules.) All to better understand this “experimental” fiction Joyce had written. What an amazing book that is. Is it crime fiction? Eh, kinda, sorta. You can do things in there that you couldn’t pull off in anything more “traditional.” When finding “HCE” hidden in a section of drunken hiccups can bring a roomful of 20-somethings to hysterical tears, you know this isn’t a normal book.
I think the idea that anyone can write a book showcasing the way the subconscious works is a bit of a lark, anyway. Really a particle-wave sort of problem, isn’t it? How can you use your conscious brain to write a subconscious story. You’d write a story in the way your conscious brain tells you that your subconscious brain works. You can’t be both at once. You can have a bit of both, but can’t really exist as one and the other. Your conscious brain can’t adequately do the subconscious bit.
Crime fiction inherently follows a causal pattern. The thing before the crime. Then the crime. Then the thing after the crime. (Let me know if I’m being too technical.)
Could you break this apart, as they did in the movie MEMENTO, to come up with something new? Someone probably has. Experiments in crime fiction happen all the time. Time shifts. Unreliable narrators. Points of view. I can’t think of a Faulkner novel that wasn’t crime fiction.
The problem with the subconscious is that it isn’t altogether rewarding, is it? We get glimpses of cleverness, but the payoff just isn’t there. Kinda like a third-rate comedian. Some funny jokes here and there, but not that big one at the end that brings it all back together. You get those minor connections, as in a dream, but no way to hold it together. “There was this horse there who turned into my Uncle Rocky, I guess because of the Italian Stallion, and then he said something that I thought was great and I thought I should write it down when I wake up but then I wrote it down on the horse’s saddle which I guess the horse had come back and I thought I was awake when I did that and then I looked down and I stepped in horsecrap and that’s when I woke up too late to let the puppy out.”
Dreams. Comedy. Jazz. Crime writing. You gotta have something to hold things together. But not too tight. And not all the time. You gotta take a leak every once and a while.
Do you think in terms of crime writing it’s more interesting to read a whydunnit than a whodunnit?
I just finished reading a good book by Michael Connelly. This one involves a cold case that’s brought up again for such-and-such a reason. So you’re expecting there to be more to the crime than you think. Well, there’s another crime related to that one. Then maybe it isn’t. Then maybe the whole reason of why it was brought up again is more important than the crime itself. In books such as that one, you just grab hold of the main guy and hope you can follow along. But in these types of books, you’re reading them because of the main character. These mysteries that have 15 books in the series. Whether it’s Laura Lippman or Reed Farrel Coleman, you’re not reading a whydunnit or a whodunnit when you pick up one in the series. You’re reading a whodunsolvedit.
Readers will go along with you in book three when your guy is chasing down a serial killer. And in book eight when he’s after a group of terrorists. Book eleven when someone is threatening an elementary school with low-grade beef. They follow along because of the character in these.
Then you have stand-alones in which the back of the book sells you. One of those where this, that, and the other is at stake and there’s a ticking clock in the background. She has to find the dirty nuke at hidden at the county fair before the fat lady sings. All without waking her senile grandmother, whom she brought along in a wheelchair for some fresh air before getting caught up in all of this. But what if she finds the nuke on page 25 but doesn’t know who or why. Or she knows the who because he was blown up just as she discovered the location of the bomb. But why was her husband planting the bomb?
I guess the wheredunnit wouldn’t work any more than the howdunnit or whendunnit. “Why” and “who” it is, then.
There’s a good book I read last year called TRUST NO ONE by Gregg Hurwitz. Bad guy going to blow things up. Then the cops kill him. The “who” in the whodunnit shifts because the crime itself has moved. The why moves along at a crisp pace.
If you set it up from the criminal’s point of view, have her kill some folks, then die in a shoot-out with the cops by page 10, I think you could have a pretty good start to a whydunnit. I would think something like this would be just as clue-driven as the typical whodunnit, but you’d need a good deal of psychobabble throughout, um, I mean insight into the killer’s personality to pull that off. Maybe by page 150 you think that the cop who killed her wasn’t as clean as you thought. Maybe he killed her to cover up something.
Whether the book is a standard whydunnit or whodunnit, it seems to me the best books are those that bring in both aspects.
Picking up on what you just said, do you think Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime And Punishment’ was one of the first great crime novels?
Kate Horsley and crew have done some great work at http://www.crimeculture.com in setting up some historical context for how crime fiction came about.
If someone wanted to claim that C&P was the first great crime novel, I’d be OK with that. Keep in mind, though, that it was first read in a magazine, much like the Sherlock Holmes stories that started a couple of decades or so later. And that’s not to mention Poe’s work back in the 40s.
And there was a book by a Danish guy in the early 1800s based on a two-hundred-year old crime. I think that one is considered a “true crime novel,” though. Can’t think of the guy’s name. (Thanks, Google. The books is The Rector of Veilbye by Steen Steensen Blicher. YES. THAT Steen Steensen Blicher.)
As for the crime novel, though, Dostoyevsky would be right there. Drunks, deadbeats, detectives, murder, and political ideology. What more could you want?
Beyond a doubt the biggest crime is that Dostoyevsky didn’t turn this into a series of novels. Maybe Raskolnikov and Sonya leave Siberia, adopt a cute little Persian kitty with some vague psychic powers and travel around the world solving crimes. Heck, he could have taken some minor characters and spun off some Young Adult novellas from it. Then people would remember his name. Dostoyevsky. Geez, what an idiot. Not THE Idiot, of course. That would be Myshkin.
Prior to 9/11, which exposed the vulnerabilities of air space and ushered in a new age of terrorism, the national boundaries of the US had been invaded militarily only once: by Pancho Villa and forces from the Mexican revolution. There is a persistent theme in American literature of the fear of invasion, be it from insurrection from within to fears of the Mafia, FBI, or CIA: do you think that this theme plays a part in crime writing?
Part of that is the basic “fear of the other,” don’t you think? As the scientists will tell you, we wear our New Orleans Saints jerseys to identify with our tribe. When we see someone at the game wearing an Atlanta Falcons jersey, we know he’s “one of them.” As humans, we’re all quite generous in our prejudices. We can hate anyone who is different — and fear is part of that hate. Whether ifrom the color of the skin or the colors of the flag, our “fear of invasion” as you put it, is a strong motivator in our lives and our fiction.
Whether it’s Pancho Villa coming into New Mexico or the government sneaking in to take away my closet of guns, fear makes a good motivator. Imagine “the other” making you powerless. Now that’s good stuff for crime fiction. Michelle Gagnon has a book out called THE GATEKEEPER about a charismatic guy who brings many of these various hate groups together. These groups fear so many things that it’s easy to get them riled up. That can be a powerful force in fiction as well as in popular culture. From the readers’ perspective, these groups become one more “other” to deal with. And each of these groups has individuals with their own stories to tell.
This type of crime fiction shares much of its punch with horror fiction, I think. The fear of something creepy and dangerous under the bed. Monsters. Terrorists. Serial killers. Government spies. Whatever it is, it’s enough to scare you. To take you out of your comfort zone and smack you around a bit.
“Fear of invasion” is, in one sense, a fear of having the status quo altered. A change to your comfort. You’d mentioned earlier about revenge. Much the same, don’t you think? For Panco Villa, the assault onto American soil was revenge for some bad guns he’d gotten. President Wilson sends forces after him, but can’t catch him. Later, President Wilson sends forces into Mexico to stop the Germans from selling guns to one of the Mexican sides. Someone does something, changing a comfort level, then the other side has to seek “revenge” in order to restore the balance — bring order to the chaos, as it were.
And that’s what much of crime fiction is all about — restoring order or creating a new order. Changing the way things are or changing things back to the way they were. Good people do well, while the bad people go to jail. Of course, what happens when the shiny people are filthy, evil bastards bent on keeping everything set to their own order? When the order isn’t all it’s supposed to be? What happens when the best person out there — the person who can set things right — is just back from two years in jail, fighting an addiction to pain killers, and trying to prove that the cop who killed his brother is a crooked son of bitch? What happens when you need an invasion from that rebel, that guy you fear, that “other,” in order to break things apart and create a new order? Well, then you don’t just have crime fiction. Then you’ve got noir.
You certainly do. Thank you for your time Steve, this has been a deep dig into noir and the way literature provides a map of our experience. Noir’s ongoing fascination and power stems from its exploration of characters who are on the edge, living in a twilight zone. It depicts men and women who are not morally upright or heroic, but flawed, desperate individuals caught up in something sinister. Because of this I think its pull stems from the fact that it shows none of us are faced with simple black and white choices. It deals with that world of the irrational that drives so much of our lives.