D. Harlan Wilson is the editor-in-chief of Anti-Oedipus Press, the managing editor of Guide Dog Books, and the author of numerous books, fiction and nonfiction alike, including They Live (Cultographies), Primordial An Abstraction, Hitler: The Terminal Biography, They Had Goat Heads, and many, many more. He is also a literary critic and a professor of English and Chair of the Humanities at Wright State University-Lake Campus. You can find out more by visiting his website.
With the recent passing of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, They Live is receiving more attention as a classic in paranoid science fiction 80s filmmaking. As someone who spent a lot of time analyzing the film, how do you see its messages and methods as relevant today?
They Live is very much about the culture of the 1980s—especially the Cold War, Reaganism, and the primacy of consumer-capitalist media. It’s by far Carpenter’s most political film. It came out in 1988, and it functions as a kind of coda to all those other great, weird genre movies he made during the 80s (Escape from New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, etc.). The dominant metaphor of capitalist surveillance, control and slavery that the film entertains is still prevalent today, but in a different way. Today people expect to be surveilled and controlled and enslaved by capitalist media, or at least they accept it without giving it too much thought. That’s assuming people even think about it at all. Most don’t. Technologized culture increasingly discourages self-reflection and self-contexualization. The further we move backwards in time, the less this is the case. As for paranoia, we’ve still got it—it’s part of the human condition that we collectively project onto the sphere of culture. But what we worry about has changed markedly. Thirty years ago we worried about nuking the planet and wiping ourselves out of existence. Now we worry about our email accounts getting hacked and how that potentially ambiguous text we just sent might be misinterpreted by Joey or Sally. That’s reductive, I guess, but to me it seems that, despite the wake of 9/11, we’re primarily interested in social media, porn, and what’s going on with our smartphones. I’m no exception. They Live gestures towards the drones we have become—socially, sexually and psychologically.
How has paranoid and postmodern theory evolved, and how is it still present in mainstream literature and film?
I used to be an enthusiastic student of postmodern thought and culture, but as I get older, postmodernism smells more and more like horseshit. To a certain extent, modernism marked the last identifiable shift in aesthetics. Everything “after” that is basically more modernism (“postmodernism”) or less modernism (Fifty Shades of Grey). There’s a good case to be made for postmodernism being an amped-up version of modernism, which is to say, modernism projected into a more technological, media-saturated future—a future that has become our past. Because what have we got now? Post-postmodernism? Or are we still in the postmodern era? When I teach postmodernism, I locate its beginnings in the 1940s, post-WW2, and while I don’t indicate any kind of ending or transformation into something else, usually I limit the postmodern texts I study to the twentieth century. Other people have different ideas about origins and the current state of the arts and culture as well as there being clear differences between modernism and postmodernism. There’s an equally good case to be made for these differences. But it’s all relative, and we can take many contemporary, twenty-first century texts and cozily situate them in the nest of postmodernism or modernism.
To answer your question about mainstream literature and film—I assume that by mainstream you mean texts that don’t fool around, right? In other words, novels and films that aren’t experimental, exceedingly weird, toy with readers and viewers, and so on. It seems to me that the way (post)modernism emerges in the mainstream is by way of mere cultural fixtures, the perpetually advancing technologies and electronic media that define our everyday lives. It wasn’t long ago that smartphones, for instance, weren’t a staple in TV shows and movies set in the present. Throw a dart and you’ll hit, say, a romantic comedy or a drama that on the surface isn’t (post)modern (or paranoid, for that matter) at all, but beneath its clothes is the birthday suit of (post)modern life. I have no concrete idea where things go from here beyond the buildup of more and more excess and desire for excess. It’s an entropic process, and the likely outcome is a cataclysmic short circuit. Or worse. Probably worse. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the outcome is something great. For me, that’s the fundament of postmodern life, and maybe what distinguishes modernism from postmodernism more than anything: there are no more real surprises.
John Carpenter was very busy in the 1980s. His work was based around apocalyptic notions: that the people around us (The Thing), the physical and spiritual worlds (Prince of Darkness), and even our own identities and memories (In the Mouth of Madness ) are not what they seem. Have you explored John Carpenter’s other films of the era as a critic or even just as a fan? How do they relate to They Live?
I haven’t formally written on his other films but I discuss them in my cultography. Carpenter certainly was busy in the 80s. He made his best films during this period. For my research on They Live, I read a lot of criticism on Carpenter and his oeuvre. Particularly compelling are Robert C. Cumbow’s Order in the Universe: The Films of John Carpenter (2000), Gilles Boulenger’s John Carpenter: Prince of Darkness (2003), and Ian Conrich and David Woods’ The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror (2005). Carpenter was a workaholic. After the success of Halloween in 1978, he really hit the bricks. In the 80s, he directed seven films, each of which was either horror, science fiction, or a hybrid of the two. In my book, I talk about how he struggled with big production companies who relentlessly tried to compromise his vision as a bona fide auteur. What distinguished him from other auteurs is that he wanted to make blockbuster films. Essentially he wanted to bring together blockbuster and arthouse cinema, and in many ways he succeeded; you can see it to varying degrees in all of his 80s films. They Live is the apotheosis of this dynamic.
In They Had Goat Heads, your writing was very apocalyptic, in the sense that reality and identity often rapidly shift, and what the reader or the characters might understand to be the “rules” of the setting and world could break down at any moment. Have you continued this trend in your more recent fiction?
I never thought of Goat Heads as apocalyptic in a traditional sense, but the implosion of reality and fantasy is a dominant theme. So is the variability of identity and the self. And I did make a concerted effort to challenge the expectations of readers and flout the rules of conventional narrative. I’ve always done that, and I still do. I’ve tried not to. I mean, I’ve tried to write more mainstream fiction, with some success, but for the most part, the harder I try to write straight fiction, the more crooked it becomes. Ultimately writing fiction that doesn’t take liberties and at least gesture towards innovation bores me.
I discovered your work when I was seeking out authors working in speculative fiction, particularly horror and weird fiction. You definitely dip your toes into the genre waters. Do others in academia have a bias against “genre” (SF/F, horror) fiction? Does it matter?
It used to matter, but it doesn’t really anymore. Maybe I’m out of touch because I’ve been reading and writing speculative fiction and criticism for so long, and I don’t teach at a Research 1 university where folks are more likely to denounce it. There are so many people in academia that are involved with speculative fiction in some way, though, either in a critical or creative capacity. If you’re teaching or writing about twentieth or twenty-first century texts, frankly I don’t know how you couldn’t at least be moderately attentive to science fiction, the machinery of which has been informing and directing our lives since the late nineteenth century. In fact, I’d say things have flip-flopped: scholars and writers of speculative fiction are no longer the dipshits of academia—everybody else is. And if things haven’t flip-flopped, they will.
How do you strike a balance between your work as an editor and as a writer? When did you know that you wanted to become an editor, and how was the transition to that role?
I strike a pretty even balance, although it depends on what’s going on. Lately editing has been taking up most of my time, especially since I became editor-in-chief of Anti-Oedipus Press, an imprint of Raw Dog Screaming Press that specializes in innovative fiction and nonfiction. Before AOP, I was the editor-in-chief of a magazine called The Dream People. I also serve as the managing editor of Guide Dog Books, another RDSP imprint exclusively for nonfiction. And I’m the reviews editor for the academic journal Extrapolation, which mainly publishes criticism on science fiction and fantasy. It’s a lot of work, but I enjoy it, and I always find time for my fiction writing, even if it’s just fifteen minutes a day. Most of my work is done in small bursts anyway. If I had a solid hour or two to work on just one project—I’d never get anything done.
Would you tell us about Battle Without Honor or Humanity: Volume 1? While it’s a collection of different stories, does it have any recurrent themes? What ideas are you exploring in the work?
Like most of my fiction, the stories in Battle are aggressively oneiric and absurdist. They’re the most mature short stories I’ve written, but they’re still playful and psychedelic. I’m currently promoting the first volume, which will be officially released by RDSP in late October at their annual convention, DogCon, in Philadelphia. The second volume is more or less finished but it won’t be released until 2016. Together they include 30 or so stories that I wrote over a period of about five years. The title comes from two sources: the theme song of the same name for Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies by Tomoyasu Hotei, and a 1973 Japanese yakuza film called Battles without Honor and Humanity directed by Kinji Fukasaku. I assume Hotei lifted the title of the film for his song, but I’m not sure. In my collections, I explore some of the same themes that Tarantino and Fukasaku do in their films, like violence, aggression, family ties, nostalgia, object-fetishization, and so on. More broadly, my Battle is about identity and the cultural maelstrom that produces (and unhinges) identity. My concern is primarily literary. Above all, I’m interested in narrative violence. Not in an experimental sense—I don’t fool around with style at all. But the stories are meta-referential and I do try to subvert the “rules,” challenging normative ideas of what constitutes the experience of reading and the production of meaning. Per usual, I guess.
What’s next for you?
I have two books coming out in 2016. In addition to the second volume of Battle without Honor or Humanity, I wrote a collection of three one-act plays that will be published by Black Scat Books. One of the plays is being produced at a community theater in Boston. I’ve written screenplays and teleplays before, but this is my first formal venture into playwriting. I really enjoy it and plan to write more.
Many of our readers are horror and weird fiction fans. What book(s) is a good place to start exploring your work?
People seem to like my short novel Peckinpah: An Ultraviolent Romance a lot. It’s a hybrid text: part murder romp, part cultural critique and satire, part homage to the films of Sam Peckinpah. It was originally published by Shroud Books in 2009 and then RDSP put out a second edition in 2013. All of my books are “weird,” though, and contain elements of horror. None of them are genre horror or weird in the vein of Lovecraft or Miéville.