Horror as the world in crisis we live in now: An interview with Timothy J. Jarvis

Timothy J. Jarvis is a scholar and self-described (if somewhat reluctant) “antic-fiction” writer, whose work has appeared in Caledonia Dreamin’: Strange Fiction of Scottish Descent, Pandemonium: Ash, 3:AM Magazine, New Writing 13, Prospect Magazine, and Leviathan 4: Cities. His writes criticism for WeirdFictionReview.com and Civilian Global. His novel The Wanderer was released by Perfect Edge Books in 2014.

What’s “Antic Fiction”? Why did you choose that term to describe your work?

I’m fairly ambivalent about genre designations. Part of me is suspicious, both of the taxonomical impulse that lies behind their creation and of their use as marketing labels. I think the best writing will always be hybrid, difficult to categorize, and display an irreverence towards established tropes. But on the other hand, in my main job as an academic and university lecturer, I think genre is an important tool for understanding and teaching how literature works, and why it takes the forms it does. I’ve also always liked those scenes in contemporary music that define their own, abstruse, sometimes ridiculous, genres as a way of expressing their difference from other forms, and as a kind of game. Further, I reckon that thinking in terms of genre can help when attempting to transgress certain ways of writing.

I believe horror is a mode that particularly enables transgression, of all kinds (not just the obvious transgressions of the body or of tastes seen in certain subgenres like splatterpunk and bizarro). Horror occurs in an instant, at a frontier, a border, a limit, and lives in interstices. It is sudden, violent, unsettling. It is the disruption of a situation we thought stable or safe, the shifting of the ground beneath our feet. Therefore I think of it as a genre as a way of crossing borders, rather than as a static thing.

When I was working on my book, The Wanderer, I began considering what I could call the kind of fiction I was writing. I knew it was horror, roughly, and I hoped to activate some of horror’s transgressive potential, but I also wanted to be more specific. I like both weird and strange fiction as terms and as modes of writing, but weird tends to bring to my mind cosmicism, and strange seems to me to consist of muted terrors and irresolution, and I knew my writing had neither true cosmic horrors nor subtlety.

I got to thinking about how horror and comedy share a great deal. The moment of horror must occur at the right instant to be effective, to bring about that crossing of boundaries, that subversion of the law. And comedy is the same – reliant on the deployment of the unexpected at precisely the right moment. I realized I was trying to combine the two modes in my work – not to write horror comedy, but to queasily meld the two.

I then pondered how, in the tradition of the folk grotesque, the gross body, a terror of the inhospitable cosmos, and comedy are closely entwined. The macrocosm is mirrored in the microcosm, the cosmic in the gross body, and the cosmic terror is brought low, made the butt of crude jokes. Mikhail Bakhtin, in Rabelais and His World, describes a number of ways in which biblical eschatology is mocked in Gargantua and Pantagruel by being reflected in the bodily functions of eponymous giants: seas of blood being mirrored by lakes of wine-tinged piss, and terrible storms, by flatulence. I realized I wished to bring some of this folk grotesque into my work.

This is what lead me to put Punch at the heart of The Wanderer. Punch, and the parallel French tradition of Guignol (which has its apotheosis or nadir in Alfred Jarry’s crazy Ubu plays), evoke not just the uncanny life of puppets, but also the carnivalesque inversion of proper hierarchies, the seeping to the surface of suppressed absurdities.

 

But grotesque in its general usage, wasn’t quite right. It occurred to me I also wanted my work to have a bizarre, nonsense, tortuous quality, that most horror, being generally tautly plotted, doesn’t have. That was when I hit upon the term “antic.” It appealed to me because it hints at knottiness alongside its suggestion of the grotesque. And its derivation from an Italian word meaning “antique” seemed right, intimating something of the fustian quality I try to get into my prose.

What is The Wanderer about? How did you come to write and publish the novel?

I slightly dread giving a synopsis of The Wanderer, as it’s a touch sprawling, and I’m not The Wandererentirely sure I know what it’s about myself. But in brief, it’s a “found manuscript” novel, in the old Gothic tradition. The central “found text” is a typescript. Its narrator is an immortal, who, on a dying Earth, in the far-flung future, types the tale of his aeon-long life as prey, as a hunted man. He also tells of his quitting the Himalayas, his sanctuary for thousands of years, to return to his birthplace, London, to set down the memoirs, and writes of the night he learned he was cursed with life without cease, an evening in a pub in that city, early in the twenty-first century, a gathering to tell of eldritch experiences undergone. The plotting is involute, confusing.

I took influence for this conceit and structure from a number of places, from Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa and William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, to the more recent novels like Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. The main source, however, was Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, from which I also took my book’s title.

In fact, Maturin’s novel was a key influence. From it I also took the idea of lives unnaturally extended, and of a diabolical pact or game. From Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Immortal” I took the idea of the dreadful tedium of a preternaturally prolonged lifespan.

A high-concept précis might go something along the lines of this: “Highlander meets Arthur Machen’s The Three Imposters, meets M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud.”

I wrote the book initially as part of a Creative Writing PhD thesis. In that form there was lots of interpolated and appended musings on the nature of the Gothic tradition and its later offshoots, horror, weird, and strange fiction. It was kind of an unwieldy project, and once I’d finished it, got my doctorate, I wasn’t sure at first what I’d do with it. But after some months, once I’d some distance and perspective, I returned to it and began hacking, rewriting, and streamlining. I then started to send it out to small presses. It was rejections at first, but some of them were encouraging, and some even contained really thoughtful critiques, so I continued to refine and rewrite till I sent the manuscript to Perfect Edge Books, and they liked it, and offered to publish it.

In the US, especially among the smell presses, there’s a huge resurgence of interest in quality horror and weird fiction work. Is there a similar upswing in the UK, Europe, or elsewhere? Who’s putting out work that you admire on your side of the pond, whether mainstream or underground?

There’s been a really significant revival of the fortunes of supernatural fiction in Britain, I would say, with popular acclaim for a number of horror fiction writers, writers like Adam Nevill, whose novels of creeping dread are utterly gripping, and also for subtly unsettling works such as Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, a novel original published by the wonderful small strange fiction press Tartarus, and subsequently picked up by the mainstream press John Murray, before going on to win the Costa First Novel Award.

Hurley’s novel exemplifies a meld of British literary realism with what has been termed folk horror: a mode in which the irruption of atavistic pagan forces into contemporary life – sometimes, as in The Loney, depicted as a ritualistic debasement of Christian orthodoxy – prove destabilising and threatening. And folk horror is a particularly potent ingredient in much contemporary horror from the U.K. But the contemporary British supernatural has many elements and precursors. The current scene’s forebears are so entwined it is impossible really to separate them out. Being schematic, though, you could point to literary realism and folk horror, alongside the Victorian ghost story, which comes down in a strange form through writers like M.R. James, and the late-nineteenth, early-twentieth century British decadent, ecstatic tradition, as practiced by writers such as Arthur Machen, William Hope Hodgson, and Algernon Blackwood. And there are also influences from surreal and absurd Continental European traditions, and, of course, from Weird Tales cosmicism and U.S. popular horror.

These influences make for a pretty unique brew. And there is a definite sense of a tradition, a continuity of writers who connect the past to the present. Ramsey Campbell is an obvious example; his particular take on cosmic horror is uniquely British, bringing in kitchen sink realism, and comic absurdism. And his influence is felt in a number of writers who are now coming to the fore. Angela Carter is another writer whose legacy connects current British horror with early twentieth-century innovators; she brought folklore, Victorian sensation plots, and innovative literary traditions together in her work. And there’s M. John Harrison, who came to prominence as part of the British New Wave of SF in the 1960s, and has carried his persistent questioning and challenging of genre boundaries into a body of work that is always bizarre, and often has a touch of horror. His 1991 novel, The Course of the Heart, combines elements of decadence and folk horror, though testing, pushing against them, and is a novel that has exerted a strong influence on recent British strange fiction. Another writer whose work bridges the old and new traditions and has recently had a huge impact is Robert Aickman. The off-kilter oddness to his tales, which he termed “strange,” is, I would say, quintessentially British. As are their milieu.

Apart from a few notable exceptions, as mentioned earlier, work in these rich traditions doesn’t often make it into the mainstream – it’s generally too abrasive, too odd, or too baroque. But it is kept alive by a number of excellent small presses in the UK and Europe, whose output runs the gamut of the British and European strange fiction traditions.

Tim Jarvis 3
Photo by Mark C. O’Flaherty

Interest in Aickman’s work was rekindled by the previously mentioned Tartarus Press, who reprinted his strange stories. This press was begun, by R.B. Russell and Rosalie Parker, both excellent authors of subtle and strange supernatural fiction in their own right, initially, to reprint works by Machen, and has brought back many almost forgotten titles, from Aickman, and writers such as M.P. Shiel, Sarban, and William Sansom. The press also puts out excellent contemporary strange fiction, including, recently, Reggie Oliver’s Flowers of the Sea. Oliver’s short fiction pays homage to the English ghost story tradition, but makes it violent and contemporary, fashions it into a bludgeon.

Swan River is another press whose output mixes reprints with original fiction. It’s based in Dublin, Ireland, and run by an expatriate American, Brian J. Showers, but its books exemplify the strange fiction tradition, and honour its partial roots in the Irish supernatural. Showers’s own Old Albert: An Epilogue, along with its predecessor, The Bleeding Horse: And Other Ghost Stories, have some of the tradition of the antiquarian supernatural, and are part Dublin ghost tour, but are also something else stranger and more brutal, something that lingers in the memory, and can’t be shaken.

Egaeus Press produce beautiful hardbacks that recall the illustrated volumes of the nineteenth century. A recent title, D.P. Watt’s The Phantasmagorical Imperative & Other Fabrications, exemplifies an intellectual supernatural tradition, one which borrows from Continental absurd and decadent fiction, and is formally and linguistically innovative, a rare thing in the horror field. It’s an extremely powerful collection. Another great recent Egaeus title, Mark Samuel’s Written in Darkness, contains potent stories of ecstatic dread in the mystic tradition of the European weird, that really get under the reader’s skin.

Zagava and Ex Occidente are presses, based in Germany and Romania, who publish very limited edition books as beautiful artefacts. Zagava have forthcoming an anthology about the passion for books, Booklore, in which I’ve an essay on Walter Owen’s very strange, and almost forgotten 1947 novel, More Things in Heaven…, alongside pieces from a number of more notable British, European, and American writers. A representative Ex Occidente title is John Howard’s and Mark Valentine’s Secret Europe, a collection of strange stories of Europe’s hidden corners, a compelling and affecting weird travelogue, both beautifully written and haunting, which has subsequently been reissued by Tartarus.

Eibonvale is a small British press who publish sui generis fiction that emphasizes the bizarre and the intellectual. Hal Duncan’s Testament is a powerful work, an apocrypha, a homoerotic détournement of the Christian gospels, while Scar City, a posthumous collection of stories by Joel Lane, is a brilliant, grim, harrowing, and very British take on cosmic horror. Chomu Press are another British press publishing powerful uncategorizable work, such as Anna Tambour’s scintillating, free-wheeling novel, Crandolin. Nightjar, a small press run by the author Nicholas Royle, publish short stories as signed, limited-edition chapbooks, and have put out some brilliant fiction. Claire Massey’s “Into the Penny Arcade” is one of the most disquieting stories I’ve read in a very long time.

NewCon Press mostly publish science fiction and fantasy, but have also put out works that slip between genres, like Neil Williamson’s wonderful anti-fantasy, The Moon King, and Nina Allan’s The Race, a really affecting novel set in a very strange, etiolated future. Allan is a writer who often also blends realism and weird elements; her recent novella, The Harlequin, has almost no fantastic aspects at all, but is still powerfully uncanny. And though they are Canadian presses, both ChiZine and Undertow have published weird works by British writers, such as Robert Shearman’s ChiZine collection Remember Why You Fear Me; Shearmans’s stories combine outright horror with a particularly British strain of off-kilter humour, to brilliant and unsettling effect.

You also write literary criticism for WeirdFictionReview.com and Civilian Global. How does your criticism relate to your fiction? How do you balance the two?

Lorna Sage wrote of Angela Carter needing an “armour of theory” to protect her creative intuition, and personally I’d go along with that. I’ve always found my critical and theoretical work has allowed me to risk leaps in my fiction that I might otherwise have shied away from (whether they actually come off or not is another matter). I’m also interested in blurring the boundaries between criticism and fiction and have recently attempted to write essays that contain fictive elements, in my Booklore essay, among other places. It’s something I want to explore more.

As a scholar, do you ever encounter academic bias against the genre forms?

Actually, the literary critical and critical theory communities are very open to genre forms now, and even to weird and cosmic fiction, with the influence of philosophers such as Eugene Thacker being felt. Where I have encountered snobbery is in the Creative Writing field, which has had a long historical association with literary realism. But even there, things are changing. It might be sinking in that horror, broadly conceived, is a mode with a particularly ability to articulate something about the world in crisis we live in now, to really burrow beneath the flesh and get at the guts.

You can keep up with Timothy Jarvis at his website.

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