I had the good fortune to be invited on to @MrDeadmanDT‘s show to discuss:
-“The literary ghetto”
-Hammer horror & BEHOLD THE UNDEAD OF DRACULA
Stephen Graham Jones, author of Demon Theory, Mongrels, and countless more joined us for the latest episode of Spooklights. Bigfoot and the greys come up, and I manage to say “haunted media” again because I’m apparently contractually obligated to bring it up every episode.
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. Continue reading “Horror as the world in crisis we live in now: An interview with Timothy J. Jarvis”
Painted Monsters is a book very much about horror cinema. Your work is highly referential and reverential, but still feels fresh. Did you set out to write stories that reflected your cinematic influences, or was this a happy accident?
OG: A little from column A, a little from column B … By the time I started putting together the table of contents for Painted Monsters, I’d already written several pieces that were highly influenced by film for one reason or another. From there, I stumbled upon the quote from Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968) that serves as the epigraph for the book, and I felt like I could use that as a jumping-off point to construct a collection that was both a survey of my fiction and also kind of a crash course in the history of horror cinema. While most of the other stories were already completed by then and had been published in other places, the title novelette was written explicitly to tie all those threads together and give the collection some thematic unity.
What makes horror movies so alluring, considering their often grisly subject matter? Why do you think horror has such an impact on young people?
OG: That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? I’m not really sure I know the answer. I recently wrote an essay for the March issue of Nightmare Magazine, about writing and consuming horror that isn’t intended to be scary, because I feel like that’s mostly what I do. A lot of my favorite horror movies aren’t particularly grisly or scary; they’re the creaky old black-and-white Gothic chillers from the 30s and 40s, the Hammer horror movies, Vincent Price and Roger Corman doing Poe in vivid Technicolor. Ultimately, for me, I think I just love ghosts and monsters and spooky graveyards and all that stuff, and horror is where the monsters live.
As for why it has such an impact on young people, horror is capable of feeling transgressive—or at least of having that sheen of transgression—in a way that a lot of other genres struggle to manage. It can give you the sense that you’re doing something forbidden, that you’re seeing something you ought not see, and I think that’s a thrill a lot of us are looking for, especially as we’re growing up.
Sometimes your characters are conscious of how their circumstances are similar to horror fiction and cinema. How did you manage to balance the direct and indirect references in ways that were natural to the stories?
OG: It would be great to have a pithy response here that made me look smart, but I think “instinctively” is the real answer. The stories that are particularly self-aware are written in a voice that sounds a lot like the voice inside my own head. I tend to see everything in terms of connections to other things, especially when it comes to movies and fiction, and so I am constantly making comparisons, allusions, and associations.
That said, I did really try to make sure that I wasn’t falling into the trap of just leaving Easter eggs for the reader to find and feel clever about. I try to use allusions and references to horror fiction and cinema as a shorthand, a way to add weight and other dimensions to the story without bogging it down. When I’m writing, I like to lay out a whole bunch of possible explanations or causes or implications for whatever is going on, and then let the reader decide for themselves, and often my allusions let me add those implications without having to commit to them.
The titular “Painted Monsters,” which concludes the collection, is somewhat symbolic in that it burns down the old horror tropes, creatures, and styles and makes way for the undefined new. What trends do you see horror cinema and fiction taking, for better or worse?
OG: Man, who knows? It’s easy to look backward and see trends, it’s much more difficult to look forward and predict them. I think one of the great things that’s happening right now in both horror fiction and film is that the ubiquity of the Internet is giving rise to an increasingly fragmented field, where lots of different people are doing really exciting work taking the genre in all kinds of different directions, and they’re able to find an audience that responds to what they’re doing.
What trends do you see your fiction taking? What ideas, concepts, or even other genres would you like to explore as a writer?
OG: Again, it’s hard to say. I love writing the kinds of stories that went into Painted Monsters, and if audiences keep reacting well to them, I’ll probably keep writing stories that play with film and cinematic influences for as long as I can. But I’d also really like to go back to doing more stuff in the tradition of the great old English ghost stories by guys like M.R. James, E.F. Benson, Robert Westall, etc. I’m already a good chunk of the way toward my third collection—which is shaping up to be more varied and experimental than my previous two—but I’d love to see my fourth be dedicated to those guys, and full of those kinds of stories.
What are you reading now? What are you reading next?
OG: Right now I’m taking a break from contemporary stuff to read a couple of titles from Valancourt Books, who do these wonderful reissues of out-of-print volumes both classic and obscure. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to have a small part in helping them usher J.B. Priestley’s novel Benighted—which is one of my favorite books, and the basis for one of my favorite movies, James Whale’s The Old Dark House—back into print, and I’ve since written a couple of other introductions for them, most recently for The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral by Robert Westall. I just finished reading Wax by Ethel Lina White, which was a pretty delightful little mystery novel with a wax museum setting, and now I’m getting into Fingers of Fear by J.U. Nicholson.
After that is probably Ted E. Grau’s 2015 debut collection, The Nameless Dark, which promises to be utterly fantastic. I’ve read several of the stories where they were originally published, and they’ve all been phenomenal. I’m not sure what’s next after that; my to-read pile is precarious and unpredictable.
What authors, contemporary or otherwise, do you find having an influence on you? Who is challenging you to be better?
OG: Well, of course Mike Mignola, first and always. Those aforementioned English ghost story guys. William Hope Hodgson, Manly Wade Wellman, Fritz Leiber, T.E.D. Klein, Roger Zelazny, Junji Ito, Clive Barker, a lot of the usual suspects. I could make a list of classic weird authors all damn day and still leave somebody out. But I’m also a big fan of writers like Holly Black and M.T. Anderson, which might be less obvious.
There are so many great people working in the horror and weird fiction fields right now that it feels futile to name names, but I think a few of the ones who most consistently make me go, “Shit, I’d better up my game” are probably John Langan, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Stephen Graham Jones, Amanda Downum, and Gemma Files.
Who are a couple of up-and-coming authors that we should be keeping an eye on?
OG: I always hate this question, because I could list dozens of people and still miss some great ones. I already mentioned Ted E. Grau up above. Jon Padgett has a collection coming out from Dunham’s Manor in 2016, and I’ve loved everything that I’ve read by him so far, so I’m really looking forward to that, and to checking out more stuff by Matthew M. Bartlett and Christopher Slatsky sooner rather than later …
What are you writing now?
OG: The answer to this question is almost always “more short stories.” Most writers I know are perpetually plugging away at their next novel, but, while I’m sure I’ll write a novel one of these days, I’m in love with the short form and not in any hurry to leave it. Right now I’ve got a few solicitations in the works for some upcoming anthologies that I can’t yet name, as well as a chapbook for Dunham’s Manor Press that ties in with both the title novelette of Painted Monsters and a project I did with artist Michael Bukowski a while ago…
Where should we be looking for more of your work in the future?
OG: Aside from the aforementioned, I’ve got stories on their way in Swords v Cthulhu from Stone Skin Press and Children of Gla’aki from Dark Regions. I’m also always thinking in terms of the next collection, and I’ve got a lot of material already together for it, so I doubt if it’ll be three years between them this time.
Besides all that, I got the go-ahead from my publisher to give you a scoop on an upcoming project that I haven’t announced anywhere else yet: 2016 will see the publication of a book-length collection of the Vault of Secrets columns on vintage horror cinema that I’ve been writing for Innsmouth Free Press for the past few years. It’ll be called Monsters from the Vault, and it’ll also have some original material, and a cover from an artist I can’t announce just yet, but am very excited to be working with.
Your art is incredibly striking. How would you describe your style?
I would put it in the dark surrealism basket. My style is constantly evolving, but the common thread that binds it all together is the dark surreal nature of it. Although some of my works are colour, or muted tones, I much prefer to work in black and white/greyscale. I feel this conveys emotion better, and our minds fill in the blanks where colour is missing. A bit like a good horror film leaves bits to your imagination, thus making it truly scary.
What drew you produce such dark, horrific imagery?
Ever since childhood I’ve always been drawn to the macabre. I have no idea why. Perhaps it’s the emotion it evokes when looking at it. I remember being in record stores as a young kid and looking at the cool monstery artwork that adorned heavy metal albums and being utterly fascinated by it. The same goes for books. I would always want to have the books that had the coolest artwork on the cover. Because if the artwork was awesome, the story inside would be awesome too.
As life went on I began to see and understand the differences between illustration/commercial art and fine art. I began discovering other fine artists whose flavour and style appealed to me and I began to develop a need to express myself visually in similar ways. I started out just doing drawings and illustrations, practice pieces, always focusing on the technical aspects of the creation rather than creating from the heart.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I started producing art of this nature. My work comes from deep within me and is usually dragged up through anxiety and migraine headaches. I find I am at my most creative during these periods, and at the time of creating it, I usually hate the work produced. A good portion of my art is influenced by our (humanity) constant need to be revolting to each other, other creatures and the planet we live on. As I get older and my art evolves, I find it reflecting more and more the true nature of what we are as a race of beings on Earth. I also have extremely vivid visions and dreams when in a migraine headache phase and I often draw on the imagery experienced when in those phases.
What artists or movements do you consider influences on your work?
There are many artists I love, all varying in style. I love the classic sci-fi and horror works of Les Edwards, Michael Whelan, Tim White, and Frank Frazetta. A love the soul-twisting surrealism of H.R. Giger, Salvador Dali, and Zdzislaw Beksinski. I love the experimental and shock works of Hermann Nitsch and The Vienna Actionists, although some of their behaviour and work is rather questionable.
What fiction or films do you consider influences?
I’m not a massive book reader or of watcher of films, but there are some authors and filmmakers who have had an influence on my thinking and artwork. When it comes to books I’m a little boring and predictable: Frank Herbert, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Arthur C. Clarke.
As far as film goes as an influence – the original Alien film, the H.R. Giger design masterpiece. Begotten by E. Elias Merhige is an amazing trip and has some very cool dark imagery. And Jaws. I love Jaws. My favourite movie ever.
Who are some contemporaries that deserve more recognition?
Chet Zar. His work has seen some commercial success, but I believe his work is up there with the greats and should be recognized as such.
What books feature your art?
I have been published in various indie magazines around the world such as Forbidden Whispers, Blood Magazine, and one or two others.
What types of books would be a good fit for your work?
I have always seen my art fitting for all types of horror and the bizarre.
What is the relationship between art and fiction, especially in regards to horror and the weird?
They are both art forms that have the ability to take their audience to another realm, whether it be deep in the viewer’s heart or a far out plane of existence in another universe. It’s this ability of this type of art that makes it special. With the exception of some genres of music, no other form of art does this. Well, it doesn’t for me, anyway.
How can authors and editors get in touch with you about commissioning you or using your art for their books?
Through my website, social media or email – firstname.lastname@example.org
What are you working on next?
I had a vision this morning whilst lying in bed, so a work based on this might be in order: I was semi-conscious, i.e., I was aware of birds twittering outside, but still sleepy and dazed. I was standing on top of a hill on a stone paved floor with a large stone wall at my left side. Before me came three black pyramids floating in a row through a dense grey fog, dimly lit from behind. A jet black figure emerged from the center one and came toward me. It was the shape of an inverted elongated pyramid with a humanoid head and spindly arms and legs. It moved as if floating on air and a black sooty smoke/mist came from it as it moved. It connected with me somehow, like a greeting of sorts, and then it moved to the stone wall and peered around the corner of it as if it was watching something coming. Then I fully woke up with a pounding headache.
Tell me a little bit about yourself outside of your artwork.
I live with my dearest darling and best friend Karen, along with our awesome pooch Truman.
Ever since leaving school, my “professional” life has seen me work as a signwriter, an art director in various advertising and design agencies, as well as freelancing and running a design/visual effects business from home. I have produced all sorts of commercial artwork and designs for a wide range of clients from real estate developers to death metal bands to filmmakers. I am currently working as visual effects supervisor for a feature film called Boar.
I have written and illustrated a children’s book called Magnificent Murray. The main character is based on my late great dane Murray. I am in the middle of producing a second book but that has been on hold as we lost our darling boy back in March. It’s been a bit difficult to start work on it again. You can see the website here – MagnificentMurray.com
I have a small recording studio where I record and produce music for myself and others. Music is my other passion, and it plays a huge role in my life.
I also collect knives. Big ones and little ones.
Small start-up companies and passionate indie developers are in the midst of an almost unheralded (at least in the corporate, compromised mainstream gaming press) PC gaming renaissance. For less than $20, you can get a number of high-quality, inventive, and even retro-inspired titles that will bring enjoyment long after your latest copy of US War Crimes Simulator is gathering dust on the shelf three months after you buy it.
Rochester, New York developer Workinman has one foot in both the mainstream mobile market and one foot in the passionate, indie developer camp. While they have developed Flash and mobile games for big companies like Nickelodeon, they’ve also focused their resources on creating Deathstate, which is a cosmic exploration / bullet hell / rogue-lite game with psychedelic visuals, graphics and musics inspired by horror movies, and retro-inspired gameplay.
I had the opportunity to play through an early version of the game, and really enjoyed the retro-style game design. It was old school without being cumbersome; challenging without ever feeling like it was unfair; and the enemies and environments were interesting enough to keep pressing on.
Pete Lazarski is the game’s art director. He’s also the artist responsible for a couple of book covers: High Strange Horror and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He and Matt (Game Content Producer) were kind enough to answer a few questions about Deathstate.
What is Deathstate?
Deathstate is a roguelike, bullet hell, single stick shooter set in a bizarre world of dimensional exploration for, PC and Mac. You play as a number of unique characters trying to discover the fate of Professor Elinberg who opened a portal to the void. Great and terrible mysteries and even greater treasures await if you are bold or foolhardy enough to go beyond the beyond.
Why Deathstate? What sets it apart from the rest of the shmup or dungeon crawler market?
The main difference between Deathstate and other shmups or twin stick shooters is that it’s a single stick shooter. To explain a little about how we ended up focusing on this as a mechanic, Matt and I are big fans of Cave bullet hell shooters like Bug Princess and Dodonpachi Maximum. In those you are in a forced scrolling environment and you’re always firing up. Your main focus is positioning and trying to catch enemies in your bullet stream. Deathstate and other dungeon crawling shooters aren’t forced scrolling though, lets say they’re omnidirectional. We really like playing Binding of Isaac and referred to that at the beginning of development, but we both agreed that it gets complicated trying to move with one stick (left) and aim and fire with the other (right).
Gameplay in Deathstate is about shooting, but it’s just as much about positioning. Especially since you’re going to wind up in procedural scenarios and emergent patterns of enemies stacking up on top of each other (there’s no fixed level layout to memorize enemy positions). Single stick shooter may not be for everybody, but we’re hoping it gives players something fun and maybe a little more accessible to begin with. That’s not to say Deathstate is an easy game. You will probably die a lot!
The game has a distinct visual style. What were the video game, film, or other influences on the art direction?
Matt and I were bringing a lot of Hellraiser early on and talking about it. Particularly in Hellraiser 2, there are some distinct visual things that happen that we fell in love with. Mainly the black light / dark light beam that Leviathan shines over the Labyrinth. We have an instance of something similar that can happen in some levels. It has a gameplay effect too, so it’s not strictly cosmetic.
Beyond the Black Rainbow was another big influence on Deathstate. That look of the film’s color and that sound (the score by Sinoia Caves) was something we were really trying to tap into. Pete Johnson, our lead composer, did a lot of work to help us define the sound tone for Deathstate. Eventually we came to composing the music using roughly a 90% Soundblaster instrument set. It helped set the time and tone for the game, the era. Plus it helped the other people who were composing music (Mike Burns and Theo Swartz) make some awesome thematic songs that easily fit in with the rest.
We originally wanted to name Deathstate as Motherlode (“Bring back the motherlode, Barry!”) but there was another similarly-named indie title out already.
Other things, films like From Beyond, Suspiria, Goblin soundtracks, John Carpenter soundtracks, all of that was mixed up in the soup as we were moving forward.
As far as video game influence on what we did with the visual style, when I look at Deathstate I feel like I’m looking at a demented Earthbound / Mother 2 played on a haunted TV set. I’ve always loved the feeling of the Earthbound sprites and character designs. Bold colors, kind of simple in ways, and deceptively friendly looking for an intergalactic-time traveling-alien-zombie-mind control conspiracy out to take over the world (and specifically kill these four young teenage kids). I haven’t been able to shake that, ever. I hope a shred of that can come out in Deathstate, having a mob of essentially soul-thirsty skeletons seem kind of endearing in a charming way.
One note we’ve taken from Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls by From Software is how they handle game story and lore within item descriptions. In Deathstate, you can just play in this bizarre dimension-scape and not have to worry about story. But if you want, you can read item descriptions and page through the Bestiary in the Library to discover more information and history about the game world.
What’s the scope of Deathstate? How big will the game be? What can we expect in the final version?
Deathstate at launch features four main worlds, each with about 11 unique enemies per world and unique world bosses. You won’t necessarily see every enemy on a single run, so there’s some replay variability in that. Between weapons, spellbooks, potions, holy and infernal relics, plus equip-able organs we have a little over 150 items to unlock and find mid-run. We’re hoping to keep supporting the game with additional content as it goes. New worlds, bosses, playable characters, items, replayability mechanics are all things we want to do. As long as the game succeeds enough to warrant continuing!
Can we expect more original content from Workinman in the future? What’s on the horizon?
I think so. For now it may be more Deathstate stuff and add-ons. We would like to make more original games but it’s too soon to say what will be coming next.
What other personal projects are you working on?
Matt: I’ve been focusing so much on Deathstate, so not too much side stuff to report on! I will have a second art book coming out eventually, tentatively titled “100 years of Soft Drawers”. You can check out my first book, Soft Drawers, here on Lulu.
Pete: This month I wrapped up work on my side project game, Halloween Forever. It’s a retro 8-bit Halloween-themed platformer. It’s also the culmination of me teaching myself game programming using Gamemaker over the last year. Play as a humanoid pumpkin man and vomit candy corn! You can check it out here.
Deathstate is available now on Steam for Mac and PC.
Also make sure to visit the development blog for some gifs and video previews: http://deathstategame.com/blog
WolfCop has been garnering buzz as a terrific underground horror comedy, and rightly so. It’s a film I watched simply because it was on Netflix and looked ridiculous—and boy, did it deliver, and then some. Fans of werewolf cinema, horror comedies (that aren’t smug imitations of greater works), practical special effects, and over-the-top action and humor will love the film.
Lowell Dean, director of WolfCop, answered a few questions about the film’s production, influences, and the future of lycanthropic law enforcement.
Going into WolfCop, I knew very little about the film. One thing I noticed right away was that the big effects were practical, and what CGI there was was used to accent, not replace, the film’s various special effects. What led you to make that commitment, and how did you manage to pull it off with a limited budget?
LD: I was committed to practical effects on WolfCop since before we even had a script. One of my best friends, Emersen Ziffle, is a practical effects artist so we were brainstorming ideas as I was writing and it just felt like a good fit – especially for a project so heavily inspired by 1980s cinema. Pulling it off was always a challenge, we just had to really plan what effects shots we wanted, and always have a backup plan in case things didn’t go smoothly on the first take – as with those types of effects you often only had one or two takes to get it right!
The humor in the film alternates between over the top, gross-out, and subtle. I found myself laughing more at the asides of characters, small looks of disapproval, or just when Lou took a swig from the bottle. What was the balance between the jokes and humor called for in the script, and improvisation between you and the actors?
LD: It was a mix of conversations and improvisation. It really depended on the character. For Lou (Leo Fafard) he was more of a straight man so he was often more serious – at least until he is unleashed emotionally and becomes a werewolf! Willie Higgins (Jonathan Cherry) and Officer Tina (Amy Matysio) were characters better suited to improv – and both came with a lot of ideas.
My goal was to ease the audience into the weirdness of WolfCop, so the first half is kind of almost a “real world” cheesy small town cop drama. We tried to be quite subtle in our humour (though often quite “punny”). Only when WolfCop appears do things get truly ridiculous. When he’s on screen, we really went for the over the top, gross-out insanity.
WolfCop, like many contemporary horror comedies, has its fair share of callbacks to other genre films. Some films rely on almost nothing else. But, with one notable exception, the callbacks in your film aren’t highlighted. What made you decide to go all out to reference the greatest film of all time, Ghostbusters?
LD: Ghostbusters was a huge influence on me as a filmmaker and on the tone of this film. Just the high concept nature of that film inspired walking the line of reality and super weird things happening, and yes if you look closely in WolfCop I even duplicate a couple shots directly (like when the WolfCruiser pulls out from the auto body shop – a homage to the first appearance of the Ecto-1). And so on. Huge influence!
The narrative of WolfCop is surprisingly complex, if you think about it. Without giving too much away, it involves local politics, crime, occult symbolism and belief among the ruling class, and controlled opposition. There’s also a lot of conspiracy theory-laden dialogue, references, and plot points, in everything from Illuminati theories of power, to the sudden (and seemingly out of nowhere) inclusion of reptilians. Question one: are you a true believer, and, question two: when did you “wake up”?
LD: Haha! Great question. I’m not a true believer – but I’m not a NON-believer, either. I think anything in possible, and I love making movies that follow suit and explore really weird ideas.
High concept plots set in the real world are my favorite.. The original draft of the script wasn’t so heavy with politics and the Illuminati, it was more focused on Satanic elements and the occult – but as the themes and the story grew in future drafts, it just made sense to find a villain that would have powerful metaphorical ramifications and work with small town politics – and who better to create a lycan than another shape shifter, a reptilian? It just felt right.
Tell us about WolfCop II. What themes will you explore in that film? Will we see the same commitment to practical effects? Will it also be a love letter to vigilante and horror films of years past, or are you taking it in another direction?
LD: WolfCop II will be crazier than the first. If the first one was a mystery, this one is an “on the run action film”. I don’t want to say too much more, yet. Once again we will focus on practical effects, action, comedy, horror, and learning more about our main characters – the ones who survived the film film, that is!
What else are you working on? Where can our readers find out more about your work?
LD: In addition to WolfCop, I’m developing a few other genre projects – some comedy, some straighthorror. You can find more about me and my upcoming projects on Twitter: @lolofilm.
Thanks for the interview!
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.