The politics of horror (and the horror of politics): An interview with Jason V Brock

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Jason and his wife Sunni.

It was a pleasure to meet you at World Horror Con. The convention was a bit… Sparsely attended, so I enjoyed our conversations. What was your experience?

Jason V Brock: It was awesome meeting you and your wife as well! I was on about eight panels, so it’s all a bit of a blur now. In addition, we attended StokerCon in Las Vegas two weeks later, which was fun. But I must observe that the attendance to both cons was a little on the low side, likely due to the two of them being so closely scheduled.

I’d say that World Horror was better organized, whereas StokerCon was more of a party. Both have their advantages and drawbacks.

What were some other positives about this year’s convention, despite its lack of attendees?

Brock: The best part is hanging out with people, of course. It was great to talk more with old friends such as Jack Ketchum, Michael Bailey, the Collings family, Bailey Hunter, Kevin J. Anderson, Linda Addison, Jeff Strand, and so on. It also affords a chance to make new friends—such as you guys, Darren Shan, and the fine folks working the convention—especially when there are not so many things going on at once, as there was in Vegas, which was a bit jammed with activity. All the panels that I saw at WHC were very good, too.

Another thing I didn’t appreciate until Vegas was how clean the air was in Utah! HAHAHAH! Vegas was just dreadful with the smoking in the casino.

We talked quite a bit about politics within and without the horror and weird fiction communities. How do you read the political climate in the horror and weird lit community? It seems that every other week there’s a new controversy or purity test, especially when it comes to Facebook statuses.

Brock: Ahh, yes. I really enjoyed chatting with you about all of that! The whole thing with social media is a boon and a curse, I’ve decided. The best part, I believe, is being able to have control over one’s work with respect to promotion, fan interaction, and so on.

In that way, these sites like Facebook, Google+, and Twitter are great marketing tools, just as blogs can be, or podcasts, but with even greater potential for connecting with other like minds. They can really raise awareness of trends, and offer the possibility to engage in communities where people can examine works and creators in detail, as well as just pass along new information and help people build a fan base, which is something that writers and artists never had a real chance to do previously. I was in the music industry for a time, so that DIY approach appeals to me.

On the other hand, the Internet—especially with respect to social media—is also a place where people can really let their demons get ahead of their better angels. Have I done that? I’m sure that I have been guilty of it, sure. Everyone has had a moment or two, or more, where their best self wasn’t presented, or they let something get out-of-hand.

For example, there have been various “jihads” waged in the past couple years or so in the name of Lovecraft’s racism, the status of the World Fantasy Awards bust as a symbol, whether a specific writer/publisher was a card-carrying white supremacist, Black Lives Matters protests, outrage over the usage of the term “social justice warrior” by a prominent scholar in the Weird field, and if the Horror Writers Association is an evil and imperious organization that ought to be brought to heel by a podcaster.

To my mind, these sorts of things simply sow discord and division. They are not designed by the instigators to promote rational or thoughtful discussion so much as to draw maximum attention to themselves so that they can sell more books, or appeal to the basest instincts in others to satisfy their own sociopathic tendencies. They aren’t “solving” any of the great issues which face our times: racism, sexism, political and religious strife.

Yes, the “purity tests” are ultimately not only rather annoying, but also damaging to the field more broadly. And fatiguing. This is not to suggest that people shouldn’t be able to vent, or to be passionate about a cause—they absolutely should be able to express themselves—but the decidedly personal nature of many of these attacks, coupled with the bullying tone and gang-like mentality of the backslapping others who pile on, is not something that’s positive for anyone.

Of course, I’m in the minority with regard to this, but that doesn’t mean I’m incorrect in the conclusion.

How does politics—personal and ideological—interfere with or inform horror and weird lit in positive and negative ways?

Brock: Well, I suspect such ideologies and points-of-view feed into some of these crusades, for one thing. And they drive a lot of people to act out. But where they should be focusing that rage and energy is into their work. Just waking up pissed off about a topic they read a Slate article about and trying to cleanse the online world of someone that dares to disagree with their view is plain silly. Better to study and reinterpret the data, to really strive to effect change through subversive, artistic means rather than just shame people, or try to bludgeon everyone around them into their worldview with threats, ultimatums, and passive-aggressive whisper campaigns. Tearing down is easy; creating something worthwhile is hard.

Instead, create a documentary; feed the homeless; become a political activist; be an artist. Do something apart from trying to gain recognition and confirmation-bias from your peers. But don’t just be a bloviating windbag ginning up hatred inside various communities, especially for lost causes, such as the Lovecraft’s racism. I mean, how can one really be upset over the incorrect notions of a dead guy from nearly a hundred years ago? There were lots of people who were nasty in the past, and whose ideas I abhor. So what? Move on. It’s too late to change HPL’s mind now!

It really just appeals to white liberal guilt, and it makes these invariably white, middle-aged males—who scream the loudest about the plights of these other races and classes—feel as though they are addressing some great wrong, I reckon. Well, I hate to say it: They aren’t. In reality, they are just stealing the flag of social-identity from minority communities and waving it around in a bid to show everyone else how great they are. It’s actually a negative thing, I feel, and it diminishes the real issues other people without such privilege endure on a daily basis.

I mean, I myself have a mixed race heritage and was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina. I understand the blight of racism to a large extent, having come from a poor rural background, and having seen it up close in various contexts. These mouthy white guys really are not doing one thing to change the lives of persons of color, not that I have seen.

They don’t actually want to fix things; they just want to whine and bemoan the state of the universe and to show what great people they are, and what horrible people these others are: “They are not like us. We are better than them. Buy my book.” It’s a form of whoring, I guess.

That’s all fine until you find yourself one of the dreaded others, I suppose.

Lovecraft’s racism has been the topic du jour for a few years. What are more timely issues the horror and weird fiction communities are in a better position to address, or could in the future?

Brock: Anything that it can have a positive impact on. Perhaps the freedom from religion, or ways we can improve race relations instead of dwelling on the brutality of the past, or the evil and destruction that humans have done to each other under the guise of class distinctions and sexism. The world isn’t comprised of only dystopia, after all. There are positive ways to address social issues and political situations.

Sometimes horror is too narrowly-defined, I feel, especially in the sub-sub-genre of the so-called “New Weird” or “Weird.” There is no “New Weird.” There are only stories, and differing ways of relating them. The modes and tone should be mutable, not some tiny sliver of a larger thing that no one outside of it gives a rip about.

Sadly, this “Lovecraft is a racist” thing really isn’t one of them, as Lovecraft is dead as a doornail. His work is important, and this flawed aspect of his persona no doubt shaped some of his output, but the flogging of immutable characteristics and insisting on viewing them through the lens of presentism is, frankly, not helping anyone to heal from his transgressions. People of color don’t need apologists from the white community to make them feel good about themselves; that’s condescending. Either they like his work or they don’t. Bringing up all this bad feeling is negative over time to the psyche.

That’s not to say one ignores it, that’s to say that one addresses it in a non-emotional manner, with no appeals to baser feelings, or without wallowing in the most unsavory aspects—which I note many of them do, which belies their real intentions, in my estimation.

I think some of this on the part of the whites doing this is a sort of “guilt by association,” as though reading and liking Lovecraft’s work means you condone his view of things: They’re not related; to state otherwise is to not only disingenuous, but also bizarre. That’s true of their positions on other topics, such as sexism, I suspect, as well. It is a nauseatingly PC stance, and also one I find suspicious, especially given the ones crowing the loudest about these things, because I’ve read their output. Many of them display questionable notions in their work, which makes me wonder if they are overcompensating as a result of their own negative biases and narrow-minded stereotyping.

Is your own work informed by your ideology or philosophy? How successful are you in achieving a balance between writing a compelling work and delivering a message?

Brock: I always strive for subtext in my work, no matter how slight the story may seem on the surface of it. But there’s no reason to be heavy-handed. One can achieve these effects through subtlety. And it’s not just “in-jokes” and cutesy or arty references; it’s about crafting ways of thinking, about mind-to-mind communication with readers that goes beyond symbols on paper or digital ink. All of my work examines my interior, as well as the world we all occupy. I hope I do it with some modicum of skill. Message and story are equal in my mind. That’s art: Saying something of import and saying it with style.

You’ve had a varied and accomplished career as a filmmaker, editor, critic, musician, and writer. What role do you enjoy the most? How do you re-calibrate between each?

Brock: It’s hard to pick a favorite, really. I guess some have more immediate results than others, such as playing music, or screening a film. One tries to approach each new situation with fresh eyes. I love working in any aspect of the arts. I think each field makes me react and think in a different way, and that energizes me.

You’ve also worked with—directly or indirectly—some very big names in the field, including S.T. Joshi, William F. Nolan, Ray Bradbury, Joe R. Lansdale, Richard Matheson, and far too many others to mention here. What’s it like working alongside some of the biggest names in literature, or curating their previously unpublished work?

Brock: It really blows my mind that I’ve actually had the opportunity to know these people; many have become friends. And the thing that always strikes me about them, to a person, is how open they are. They are not only pleasant, but also accessible, and more than willing to share their thoughts, feelings, and personal insights. They are human, generous with their time and attention. I strive to be that way myself: a whole being, and also mindful of the plights of others from the present and the past. We don’t know what it’s like to struggle with certain things. I guess that’s the attitude I try to manifest regarding HPL and other folks. We’re all imperfect.

What is your most recent project?

Brock: I just completed my second short story collection, which is entitled The Dark Sea Within and Other Macabre Revelations. It’s due out later this year from Hippocampus Press. I also just completed designing two books: One is a collection for John Palisano, All That Withers, and the other is Gothic Lovecraft which is edited by scholars Lynne Jamneck and S. T. Joshi. Both will be out this summer under our imprint, Cycatrix Press.

What are you working on now?

Brock: I am in the midst of fulfilling about eight fiction anthology invites, and writing numerous nonfiction pieces. Also a script for a short film that’s been optioned for one of my stories, “The Central Coast” from my first collection, Simulacrum and Other Possible Realities. My wife, Sunni, and I are completing a third documentary, this one loosely about the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism art movement and its associated imagery, called Image, Reflection, Shadow: Artists of the Fantastic.

There are other things in the hopper, but nothing I can mention at present, unfortunately!

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