Praise for Twisted Tales Events
'In the past few years Twisted Tales has become a major force in the promotion and appreciation of horror fiction. As well as putting on author readings and signings at bookshops it has expanded into organising larger events, bringing authors and critics together for discussions of the field. I've been involved in quite a few of both and have found them hugely enjoyable and stimulating - I believe the audiences did as well. May Twisted Tales continue to grow and prosper! If you love the field, support them! I do.' - Ramsey Campbell
‘Twisted Tales consistently produce well-organised events for writers and readers of horror. What really distinguishes Twisted Tales for me is the intelligent themes and investigations they pursue, and the high quality of the discussions they always stimulate. As an author I've been invited to three of their events and have been pleasantly startled, to near shocked, by the attendance levels - two out of three were even sold out. I salute anyone who contributes so much to the literary and cultural life of horror fiction.’- Adam Nevill
Wednesday, 11 November 2015
romance, most recently the
TF: Your stories often have characters confronting a kind of weird ecstasy - the Pleroma in Course of the Heart, or Anna Kearney's experiences in Empty Space. The audience for Twisted Tales might be familiar with the dark side of ecstasy - the confrontation with cosmic horror that comes in a Lovecraft story - but for your characters and the reader the encounter is far less conclusive, far more confusing, if potentially just as devastating. Could you talk a little about ecstasy and your stories?
MJH: That's true. And the characters in the more mainstream stories, like Climbers, suffer (I think that's the right word) a kind of secular ecstasy, which you might describe as the ecstasy of simply being alive. It's that aspect of the encounter with the sublime--which you would see as often in Kerouac as in Machen or Hildegard of Bingen--that interests me. The idea that if something ordinary sits at the heart of the mystical experience, then, equally, something profound lies at the heart of the ordinary. You can make that statement in either direction, of course, and frame the subsequent argument to your taste. Some mornings I'm a shade more interested in finding the profane at the heart of the sacred than I am the sacred at the heart of the profane. A certain restlessness around that is where I'd locate the 'horror' in my fiction, that's where it has something in common with the horror tradition. But Lovecraft's anxiety of the unknowable, his sense that it must always be undermining of the human, is of less interest to me. It seems frame-dependent. I'm very much in favour of inexplicability as an essential component of human experience. Aickman quotes Sacheverell Sitwell's for his epigraph to Cold Hand in Mine: 'In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation'.
TF: Your characters often seem caught by that irreducibility. The Climbers are conscious of their trajectory towards an entangled ecstasy / annihilation, which they see in terms of routes mastered and cartilage ruined, but they wouldn't think of quitting. At the opposite end, those characters who try to deny the sublime, like Lucas and Pam in Course of the Heart or Michael Kearney in Light, become stunted, half-lived people. Is there a middle way?
MJH: Not if you want to map the tension between the two, no. But I think most of us eventually find a way of living with it. Of course, that's a defeat as far someone like Choe Ashton (Signs of Life) is concerned. I'm not sure I'd describe Lucas Medlar as the stunted one in Course of the Heart--he's still struggling at the end, in fact like all good fictional ephebes he disappears *into* his struggle. I still have real hopes that he's out there, trying to get it. The stunted one in that novel is the narrator. He's kept his life on an even keel, denied his actual aliveness much more successfully than Lucas, and he'll never find the Coeur or understand that there was something to find. I'm interested in how these dichotomies translate to the newer stuff--the KT novels, for instance, where the struggle to experience profane ecstasy is sidelined, even satirised, in the self-parodic fates of characters like Paulie deRaad and Ed Chianese. Anna Kearney decides to live 'for herself' but despite her narcissism doesn't know how. And in characters like RI Gaines and his daughter Alyssia, the issues have begun to shift elsewhere. This is visible in the eponymous characters of the short story "Cave & Julia". I don't know what it means yet, but I dare say the fiction will tell me in the end.
TF: It's definitely moving. At the end of Light - and I mean into the very last words, which I won't spoil for readers of the interview who might not have read the book - there was an immense sense of forgiveness and possibility as the characters realise their transcendental possibilities in a cosmic event. It was exhilarating and, ironically for something with so much narrative possibility, it feels like a conclusion. Then in the next Kefahuchi Tract novels the sublime and the drive to find it moves sideways, still present but not at the narrative knot in the way it is in Light or the earlier Signs of Life or Course of the Heart. Did that culmination and change have anything to do with your return to capital letters Sci-Fi in Light?
MJH: Not directly, I think. But those books were liberating in all sorts of ways. Curiously--given that we're talking about space opera, with its stress on movement, colour and imagery--the major liberation was in terms of character. Much of that was to do with elbow room. You have a lot of it in a space opera, and if I had more, I felt as if I could allow the characters more, too. Anna, Liv Hula, Helen Alpert, all got free and did interesting things. Some of the minor characters, like Anna's daughter (who was intended originally to be just a voice on the other end of the phone--a kind of invisible chorus commenting on Anna's ditziness), got free and did interesting things. Even the Assistant, that robot adolescent wet dream of sci-fi gaming, got free and did some interesting things. I took a lot of the impulses that lay behind the material and started to try and understand them through short stories like 'Animals', 'Cave & Julia', and 'Getting Out of Here'. The new short story volume, if it ever gets published, will show this as a process. (Although other processes were involved there too: my blog, for instance, has been a massively valuable halfway house between fiction and nonfiction, which run in and out of one another throughout the collection.)
TF: Reading several of your stories, a reader is likely to find repeated scenes and archetypes and imagery which return in different arrangements, with different significances, as though your writing is a long and dreamy thought process picking at problems - not necessarily to solve, but to find some of the edges. Are there any problems that you've so exercised they no longer feed into that process? And what are the main feedstuffs at the moment?
MJH: I don't think they're problems, so much as images that my head won't let go of until I've attached them to a concept (philosophical, scientific, political) and a character-- then via the character to some aspect of being alive. They occur and recur, combine and recombine, switch one another on and off like genes, reverse their meanings, invert each other's meanings. It's less a thought process (though plenty of thinking goes on) than a process of imagination. The biggest kick I ever get is to find myself pursuing some group of images without knowing why, so I look at the story I've produced and haven't the slightest fucking idea who wrote it. It's like being reborn again and again. Since 2008 I seem to have been obsessed with water; archaic hominin introgressions in the 'modern' human genome; a kind of bloodless mystic butchery; tainted business cults; shadowy UKIP rites that make Freemasonry seem sane.
TF: I'm not sure if I'm reassured or nervous that your stories are as mysterious to you as to the rest of us. It makes your meticulous prose (I think it was China Mieville who called it 'writing with a scalpel') and disarming ability to convey life and the world a little easier to reconcile with a human author if the writing process didn't all go through the forebrain; conversely it suggests the intrusion of dangerous metaphysics (non-euclidean geometries, chthonian intellects, etc.) in the gap. Assuming that you don't wake from a fugue once every few years to find a manuscript on your computer desktop, how do you train your imaginings into satisfying stories?
MJH: If everything 'went through the forebrain' we wouldn't have imaginative writing of any kind; but, yes, once the mass of material has suggested the direction it wants to take, and perhaps even fallen into pre-written units, it needs to be encouraged into shape. That can take a lot of work, or it can happen across a couple of hours. I look for connections between levels, opportunities for parallel and contrast. Echoing. Shaping rather than plot, but plenty of narrative push-through. Syntactical connections between scenes, just as you'd have between the elements of a sentence, are very important, because they manage the emotional, the political, the human logic. Then a few simple formal rules about when you make a reveal, how you prepare for it--because most of the short fiction is revelatory and epiphanic (though often enough the reveal is that nothing is revealed, and the epiphany is fairly oblique). I'm interested in scale and narrative grain. I use the iterative a lot to manage time, and to control the reader's distance from the events as they 'happen'. One of my favourite structural units is the two-line drop: you can cram a lot into that. If I use a traditional form or trope, that's usually to break it in some way, or refuse the closure it suggests. I often use structures out of nonfiction. I often use a 'character study' as the basis of the structure. All that is controlled through the surface. I often use a surface from one genre to control content from another.
TF: I'd like to pick up on the idea of refusing closure. Your stories are not conciliatory, sometimes even antagonistic - I'm thinking of some of the Viriconium stories. What does that offer you?
MJH: To begin with it was a bare-faced trolling of the f/sf reader, a way of seeming to offer what f/sf normally offers, then snatching it away by allowing the story to fall into a kind of absurdism. That was an act of metafiction, a criticism of the genre. From there, it became a way of exploring the refusal of closure as an act in itself--really, as a matter of technique; then of its potential as a political act. Now I'm interested in using it to look at individual emotional experience (which comes with an automatic political component anyway). When I began writing flash fiction and nonfiction on my blog in 2007, I realised that I could bring method and content together by making the fiction a kind of lost property department, or missing persons department, in stories of self-storage units or of people who make the decision to 'become lost in their own life'. Around then I finally felt that I had shed the original trolling dynamic of the technique, and discovered a less limited, perhaps more positive purpose for it. Probably the best way to define what I'm doing now is to quote the piece I put up on my blog today--
'The structure of the story, as it is engaged by the reader, should have a similar effect to that of discovering a selection of items in a container of unlabelled material from someone else’s life. The end of the story, instead of providing closure, tries to recreate the moment in which some fragments of evidence–which might not actually be evidence–flicker together to suggest the possibility of a pattern that might never have been there anyway. Glimpses of emotional meaning that shift with the light, framed by uncertain nostalgias. The sense of briefly understanding or failing to understand emotional states that you might, anyway, have invented. The aim of the writer is not to become an exhibitor of found objects, but instead to not quite succeed in curating that which might or might not have been there in the first place. There is, obviously, a politics to that, and it always produces, by definition, a story of ghosts, if not an actual ghost story.'
TF: 'Bare-faced trolling of the f/sf reader' would have been a fun cover blurb for the Masterworks Viriconium. You've been telling stories with ghosts, echoes, apparitions for decades; the Shrander, the manifestations of/from the Pleroma, the Shadow Boys, even the Reborn Men and New Men if I'm stretching the definition. Humanish presences that linger, or (at the more MR Jamesy end of things) inhuman shades that pursue (though not for Jamesian reasons). Then there's Empty Space: A Haunting. For want of a better way to put the question: what is it with you and spooks?
MJH: Ghosts, hauntings, accidental interleavings of time or continua, faux retro, the slipperiness of perception, things which might be there or might not--all part of the armoury of the uncanny. In the KT trilogy, everything, from Shadow Boy to advertisement to human being, is made of information, and information is always slipping away into new combinations and meanings. It's another way of asking the reader, 'Is there anything on this page but letters? Is there anyone to read it who isn't made of slippage?' Then hauntology, of course: 'that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive'. And there's pure nostalgia--the haunting by an old photograph, or by a photograph not yet taken, a condition not yet reached, letters not yet written on pages. An old building is already a kind of haunting, an outcrop of the past into the present. As you say, ghosts or something like them are central to my stuff. I can't say I believe in them per se, though. They're grist to the mill, they facilitate certain kinds of fictional structures, which are in turn the best way of handling ontological or epistemological issues, the big question to myself as well as the reader: knock knock, is anyone there?
TF: There's a comparison back to the numinous (and Lovecraftian) there - a panghostliness, a cosmic haunting. A world-as-specter. I'm writing this the day before you talk at the Twisted Tales of the Weird event in the Manchester Gothic Festival, and as a parting question, I wondered if you could talk a bit about the weird and maybe how it relates to the other characteristics of your work we've covered - absurd, inconclusive, sci-fantastical, ecstatic haunted, romantic, surreal, et al. Maybe your thoughts going into or coming away from the panel? Also, can we plug your next book? Does it have a street date yet? I'm really really glad to see that Course of the Heart, Signs of Life, and Things that Never Happen are set for reprints in September 2016.
MJH: Aickman's 'Bind Your Hair' shows the obliquity and reserve I'd associate with a sort of English Weird; symbolism that doesn't quite mesh with--or even entirely admit to--its own subject matter. For me the Weird was always a kind of perverted or broken Imagism. It was also, for instance, permission to write SF on a philosophical chassis that the Church of Sci-Fi would consider bad or heretical theology, ie the proposition that the universe is not innately knowable.
As I said above, I like it best when I'm producing work I don't yet fully comprehend: writing then becomes a way of working towards that comprehension. I was pretty much finished with the KT trilogy in those terms by 2008, although I'd only just started the third book. That phase was closing; at the same time, new material was turning up. My intention was to take a break from space opera and explore that, but circumstances didn't allow. So since I finished Empty Space I've been working my way back into that material, trying to recoup it and beat the exhaustion that came from not dealing with it while it was fresh.
New work: there's a collection of short stories which, though it goes back as far as 2001, is primarily made of this new stuff, including flash fiction from the blog. It's finished, it's with my agent, but I haven't a clue when--or even if--it will be published. And there's a new novel grinding its way into the same seam of ideas. Neither of them have titles yet. The novel is Weird, set in the present--uncompromising but, I hope, funny.
Wednesday, 30 September 2015
M. John Harrison is one of the most influential writers of weird fiction that the UK has produced. Perhaps best known for his Viriconium sequence (1971-84) and The Kefahuchi Tract trilogy (2002-12), for which he won the James Tiptree, Jr Award, Arthur C Clarke Award, and Philip K Dick Award, he also coined the term ‘New Weird’ and remains an innovator in the field.
Helen Marshall is an author, editor, and medievalist. Her two collections of short stories, Hair Side, Flesh Side (2012) and Gifts for the One Who Comes After (2014), have been up for the World Fantasy Award, the Bram Stoker Award, the Aurora Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award. She lives in Oxford, England.
Timothy J. Jarvis is a writer and scholar with an interest in the antic, the weird, the strange. His first novel, The Wanderer, was published in the summer of 2014. His short-fiction has appeared in Caledonia Dreamin’ and Leviathan 4: Cities, among other places. He lives in East London.
Monday, 15 June 2015
For more information, visit: http://haroldschechter.com/
DS: How do you define true crime?
HS: As I understand it, true crime is a genre of narrative nonfiction whose typical subject is (to use a popular Victorian phrase) 'horrible murder'. While it is common among moral crusaders to see our current infatuation with true crime as a dispiriting symptom of the debased sensibilities of our sensation-steeped culture, the truth is that the appetite for tales of real-life murder, the more horrific the better, has been a perennial feature of human society. In the old days, before the invention of movable type, accounts of shocking homicides were disseminated among the peasantry in the form of orally transmitted crime ballads: versified narratives of real-life stabbings, stranglings, bludgeonings, dismemberments, and the various forms of familicide. Gutenberg’s invention made it possible for his successors to profit from the undying human need for morbid titillation. Whenever a particularly ghastly killing occurred, it was promptly written up in either doggerel or prose and printed on broadsheets or in crudely made pamphlets to be sold by itinerant peddlers. From those primitive beginnings, the genre evolved into the illustrated proto-tabloids of the Victorian era, the pulp magazines and dimestore paperbacks of the early twentieth century, and the legitimately literary works of the post-Capote era.
DS: You’ve had a prolific and very successful career as a true-crime writer. What attracts you to the genre? Are there any writers or texts that are particularly influential on how you write and what you want to achieve?
HS: I suppose to fully answer that question, I'd have to consult with a shrink. Putting aside the issue of my personal psychology, however--guilt-ridden fantasy, unresolved Oedipal conflict, that kind of thing--I have, as an academic myth critic, a professional interest in true crime. Specifically, I have always been intrigued by the human need for stories about archetypal monsters. To me, true crime is essentially fairytale horror for grownups. You see that clearly in the kind of supernatural nicknames tabloid writers invent for certain homicidal maniacs: ‘The Night Stalker’, ‘The Vampire of Sacramento’, ‘The Pied Piper of Tucson’. These real-life criminals awaken infantile fantasies of supernatural demons lurking in the shadows, turning us all into awe-struck children again. It's why certain criminals--Ed Gein, for example, the model for Psycho's Norman Bates and Leatherface of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the subject of my first true-crime book, Deviant--achieve a mythic status in the culture. Those are the particular kinds of killers I'm interested in writing about. In fact, when I first started out, I thought, immodestly enough, that I was creating a new genre, not 'true crime' but 'true horror': nonfiction accounts of actual criminals who seemed like the flesh-and-blood incarnations of the kinds of ogres encountered in myth and folklore.
As for the second part of your question, I have, like virtually everyone working seriously in the genre for the last fifty years, been deeply influenced by In Cold Blood. But I have also been influenced by my lifelong immersion in horror cinema. To create certain narrative effects in my books, I consciously look at the ways specific scenes in my favorite horror movies have been shot and edited in order to produce tension, suspense, shock, etc. And then I try to replicate those effects in prose. What do I hope to achieve in a larger sense? In addition to producing compelling narratives--transforming newspaper articles, trial transcripts, prison records, and other primary source material into (hopefully) page-turning stories--I like to think that I am creating definitive accounts of some of our nation's most historically significant murder cases. Since I also believe that you can learn as much about a particular era from its signature crimes as from its politics or pop entertainments, I also see my books as a form of social history.
DS: Do you think that true crime can or should have any kind of social utility in order to be successful? If so, what is true crime useful for?
HS: That crime is inseparable from civilization--not an aberration but an integral and even necessary component of our lives--is a notion that has been advanced by various thinkers. Picking up on Plato’s famous observation that the virtuous man dreams what the wicked man does, Freudians argue that violent lawbreakers make it possible for the rest of us to adapt to the demands of normality by acting out (and getting punished for) our own forbidden impulses. In the view of Émile Durkheim, the criminal contributes to civic well-being not only by promoting a sense of solidarity among law-abiding citizens--who are united in their condemnation of the malefactor--but by providing a cathartic outlet for their primal vengeful impulses. If such theories are valid (and they have much to commend them), then it follows that criminals can only fulfill their social function if the rest of the world knows exactly what outrages they have committed and how they have been punished--which is to say that what the public really needs and wants is to hear the whole shocking story. And this is precisely what true-crime literature provides.
DS: With texts like Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget’ in mind, could you comment on what you see as the role of the Gothic in true crime? Is true crime intrinsically Gothic/horrific, or does it depend on the case and the author’s perspective?
HS: To give a somewhat roundabout answer: as we all know, there are a dismaying number of ghastly homicides more or less on a daily basis. The vast majority of these generate nothing more than a day or two's worth of coverage before disappearing from the news. A tiny fraction, however, maintain an ongoing grip on the public imagination; some even become a permanent part of our cultural mythology. I've always been interested in why certain crimes--the Leopold and Loeb case, to take one example--exert such lasting fascination, while other equally sensational crimes (e.g., the horrific 1927 abduction-murder of twelve-year-old Marian Parker by William Edward Hickman) quickly fade into obscurity. One of my favorite observations about this very issue was made in 1836 by James Gordon Bennett, publisher of our nation's first sensationalistic ‘penny paper’, the New York Herald and the acknowledged father of American tabloid journalism. During his coverage of the famous case of the murdered New York City prostitute, Helen Jewett, Bennett wrote: ‘Men who have killed their wives, and committed other such everyday matters, have been condemned, executed, and are forgotten, but it takes a deed that has some of the sublime of horror about it to attract attention, rally eloquence, and set people crazy’.
Bennett’s insight that the murders people are interested in reading about are those which provide an experience of ‘the sublime of horror’ makes the connection between true crime and the Gothic very clear. It’s why Poe used Bennett’s paper as a source not only for his crime fiction but for certain of his horror tales as well. ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, for example, was partly inspired by the Herald’s coverage of the 1840 case of Peter Robinson, who murdered his creditor, Abraham Suydam, and interred the body beneath the floorboards of his basement.
DS: What’s your take on the mixture of fact and fiction in true crime? In your own work, how do you balance fidelity to historical fact on the one hand and the need to craft a compelling narrative on the other?
HS: While In Cold Blood elevated the book-length true-crime narrative to the rarefied heights of serious literature, its author also set an unfortunate precedent by indulging in the kind of novelistic embellishment (not to say rank fabrication) that has become endemic to the form. People who write true crime, of course, aren’t the only authors of creative nonfiction who have been known to improve on the truth. Given the promise of absolute veracity that is embedded in the very name of the genre, however, I believe they have a particular obligation to stick to the facts.
Not that I’ve always done so myself. Early in my career, I occasionally allowed myself a bit of what I referred to as ‘extrapolation’ (less euphemistically known as ‘making stuff up’). My unacknowledged credo (cribbed from the first chapter of Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) was, ‘It’s the truth even if it didn’t happen’. In my own defense, I restricted myself to fairly minor atmospheric details. For example, there's a scene in my book Deranged in which the main character--the wizened cannibal pedophile Albert Fish (using his pseudonym, Frank Howard)--dines with the family of his future child-victim, Grace Budd. Here's how I describe the meal:
The men retired to the kitchen, a clean but dingy-looking room illuminated by a single bare bulb that tinged the whitewashed walls a sickly yellow. The long wooden table, covered with a plaid oilcloth, held a big cast-iron pot full of ham hocks and sauerkraut--the leftover remains of the previous night’s dinner. The sharp, briny odor of the cabbage filled the room. Arranged around the pot were platters of pickled beets and boiled carrots, a basket of hard rolls, and two ceramic bowls into which Mrs. Budd had transferred Frank Howard’s pot cheese and strawberries.
Now, while this lunch really happened, I took the artistic liberty of inventing the menu. I hasten to say that I did some research into the kind of food a working-class family like the Budds might serve a guest for lunch in the late 1920s. Still, I didn't actually know what they ate--I just wanted to make the moment seem real for the reader.
I no longer permit myself even such minor bits of imaginative re-creation. My field is historic true crime--I've covered cases from the Civil War era to the 1950s--and I've come to see the genre as a legitimate branch of American historical study. After all, the Leopold and Loeb case tells us as much about the Jazz Age as Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight, just as the Manson murders shed as much light on the culture of late-1960s America as Woodstock. To be taken seriously as history, however, a true-crime book must adhere strictly to documented fact (which is why my last few books have included copious endnotes). There's no reason why a book-length narrative about a nineteenth-century serial murderer shouldn't be held to the same rigorous standards as, for instance, a biography of Teddy Roosevelt.
My task, then, as I see it is to produce a serious work of historical scholarship that stays true to the sensationalistic roots of the genre by providing ‘murder fanciers’ (as Edmund Pearson called true-crime lovers) with the primal pleasures they crave. Once I’ve settled on a subject, I launch into my research, a process that generally takes anywhere from a year to a year-and-a-half and involves many long hours of digging through various archives, copying old newspaper-stories from microfilm, getting hold of legal documents, police reports, trial transcripts, and psychiatric records, tracking down and interviewing relatives (of the perpetrator and/or and victims), etc. Before I’m done, I’ll have accumulated several thousand Xeroxed pages plus a small library of books.
Shaping this sprawling mass of raw material into a readable narrative is, of course, my main creative challenge. While I'm scrupulous about keeping the content strictly factual, I feel free to manipulate certain formal elements--mostly story structure and point of view--for maximum dramatic effect.
DS: Thanks to podcasts like Serial and documentaries like The Jinx, we’ve seen a recent resurgence of interest in true crime. Why do you think it remains a popular genre?
HS: Simply put: we all, in the darkest recesses of our psyches, want to commit murder. True crime permits us to experience in fantasy what we would never allow ourselves to do in the flesh. It provides a safe, socially acceptable way to satisfy what the art critic Erwin Panofsky calls our ‘primordial instinct for bloodshed and cruelty’. It’s the same reason that Poe remains the most popular of nineteenth-century American authors.
DS: What do you see as the future of the genre?
HS: The only real changes I see have to do with technology--i.e., the ways the stories are transmitted and consumed. There are now entire cable TV channels devoted to true-crime shows, many of which rely heavily on dramatized recreations. I suppose the next step will be virtual reality true crime, where the audience will feel they’re actually wielding the hatchet while administering forty whacks to Andrew Borden’s skull.
DS: What are you working on at the moment?
HS: At this particular moment, I’m working on this interview. I also have a new book coming out in August--Man-Eater--on the legendary Colorado cannibal, Alfred G. Packer (at whose 1883 trial the sentencing judge reputedly said: “Packer, you voracious sonofabitch, there were seven Democrats in Hinsdale County and you ate five of them!”). As for my next project, I’m contemplating a book about Belle Gunness, the infamous, ‘Lady Bluebeard’ of LaPorte, Indiana.
Monday, 30 March 2015
Created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk
Brad Falchuck and Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story aired in 2011 and played out to both criticism and critical acclaim. While Murder House exhibited an astonishing range of horror ingredients from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Shining to Rosemary’s Baby, likewise, the eagerly awaited second instalment to the American Horror Story anthology, Asylum, plunders from American anti-convent mythology and paranoid conspiracy narratives. There is no doubt that American Horror Story is a masterful lesson in American fictions that make monsters. Yet, the show’s monstrosity is not merely a fictional projection. Instead, it offers demonstration after demonstration of the making of real contemporary monstrosity: gimps, lunatic ex-girlfriends, phantom pregnancies, evangelical scientists, suicides, rapists, Nazis, rednecks, calculating and cruel clergy, maniacal mothers, corrupt fathers, child abductors and serial killers abound.
The unarguable popularity of American Horror Story shows us that television has come to serve as a convenient vehicle for the articulation of what American society finds truly monstrous in the twenty-first century. Asylum is set in Briarcliff Manor, a sanatorium set up by the Catholic Church for the criminally insane and continues to pose questions of the ‘monsters’ that American culture creates. This includes holding a mirror up to the audience’s voyeurism and seemingly obsessive appetite for the monstrous. Asylum initially opens in the present day and focuses on a couple of sexy, young newly-weds called Teresa and Leo (Jenna Dewan Tatum and Adam Levine) as they honeymoon on horror. In the opening shots, these thrill seekers venture into the abandoned sanatorium and, with much heavy panting and dirty-talk, get-off on the building’s gruesome past. Teresa, reading from a history book, reveals that one of the more notorious inhabitants was a serial killer called ‘Bloody Face’. A diabolic murderer of women so named because he likes to skin and then wear his victims’ faces. The couple are obviously thrilled by the building’s history of violence and mayhem, that is, until fantasy becomes a reality and a psychotic masked killer begins to stalk them through the asylum, ripping them limb from limb.
How, according to Asylum, did a dubious taste in foreplay, manage to get the hapless young couple violently dismembered? Well, as with all things in American Horror Story, the answer is bound up in the dark, dark past. Subsequently, the series explores the historical events of Briarcliff Manor. Beginning in the 1960s, it follows the stories of several misfits employed by the institution along with the inmates committed to its labyrinthine wards for crimes against normality. The fierce Sister Jude (Jessica Lang) and her sweet-tempered novice, Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), are charged with the everyday running and maintenance of the institution and with upholding the religious standards set out by its founder Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes). While the nuns attend to the patients’ spiritual health, their mental and physical care is the domain of Psychiatrist Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto) and scientist Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell). Briarcliff’s latest patient, Kit Walker, aka ‘Bloodyface’ (Evan Peters), is an alleged serial killer and mutilator of women. Walker has been sent to the asylum deemed unfit for trial due to his apparent insanity after claiming that aliens committed the crimes he is accused of.
Kit’s insane alibi aside, Asylum gives clear indication of his innocence early on and, instead, sets him up to be the focal point through which we experience the fear and injustices perpetrated by institutions of mental health during the 1960s. Yet, despite this Asylum is very much a women’s horror story. As David Simmons pointed out in his review of the first season, ‘American Horror Story places an unusual degree of emphasis on its female characters’. The second season continues this trend, reprising key roles for many of season one’s central female actors, including Lange, Rabe and the queen of weird TV, Frances Conroy, as the angel of death. It also introduces a new cast of female monsters and madwomen whose alleged mental disturbances and past crimes are the means through which the series explores a number of social issues related to what we fear. At Briarcliff, Walker meets many other patients with allegedly violent and twisted backgrounds including Pepper (Naomi Grossman), a microcephalic woman who killed her sister’s baby and cut its ears off, Shelley (Chloë Sevigny) a diagnosed nymphomaniac, and Grace (Lizzie Brocheré) an axe-murderer. The standout female performance, however, goes to Sarah Paulson whose vague and unconvincing role as a clairvoyant-for-hire in season one is more than redeemed by her new role in Asylum as ambitious lesbian journalist Lana Winters. Winters infiltrates the formidable Briarcliff determined to expose the wrongdoings being carried out inside its walls. However, when her relationship with a female school teacher is uncovered by Sister Jude, Lana finds herself incarcerated as a patient and referred to Dr. Thredson for help with her ‘affliction’.
As in the first series, a dominant theme of Asylum is the twisted morals and psychosexual disorders underpinning definitions of normative identity. Along with staple horror figures, the series examines public figures as diverse as the psychiatrist, the doctor, and the priest, representing them as authorised predators at their most imperious, ambitious, and downright evil. As the series progresses, the professional and personal lives of its authority figures are revealed to be adventures in sadism, masochism, self-hatred and perversion. Cue scenes of prolific cruelty including electroshock treatment, ice baths, emotional and physical abuse all delivered with a barely concealed sexual tension. Sister Jude harbours a secret lust for Monsignor Timothy and enjoys punishing the angelic Kit by bending him over a desk and caning his naked backside. Dr. Arden is a Nazi Eugenicist with an obsessive hatred of impurity; particularly it seems of the female sex. This fear guides his mysterious experiments in the basements of Briarcliff and his own dark desires for the innocent and chaste Sister Eunice.
Asylum preempts the accusations made by some critics that American Horror Story is a ridiculous pileup of mindless sex and cruelty, hard to stomach. From the season’s credit sequence, a montage of strapped-down bodies, heaving bosoms and tear-soaked faces, to the introduction of sex and horror tourists Leo and Teresa, to Kit Walker’s ‘probing’ by ETs, it unashamedly points out that the theme of scary and deviant sex is the series’ dominant metaphor for horror. In pursuit of these ends, Asylum continues to push the boundaries of what is acceptable to air on television. There are horrors upon horrors, brutality upon brutality, humiliation upon humiliation and every twist and turn is set up to both shock and shamelessly titillate. Nonetheless, there is also a deftness with which Asylum pursues some of the seemingly conflicted but entangled cultures that form modern American identity, including its voyeuristic embrace of celebrity, psychiatry, and fundamentalist religion.
Lana’s story is, in part, about the plight of gay people who historically have been ‘treated’ through medicine and psychiatry in a way that amounts to physical and mental torture. Instead of Thredson ‘curing’ Lana of her lesbianism, he subjects her to a cruel bout of aversion/conversion therapy that involves administering fellatio to an awkward but willing male volunteer as the psychiatrist looks on. As if this upsetting scene were not enough, the plot thickens when Lana becomes the object of Thredson’s own obsessive love disorder causing him to lock her in a basement/dungeon under his house. In one of many plot twists, the handsome and progressive psychiatrist is revealed to be more dangerous than simply a misguided practitioner; he is none other than the serial killer ‘Bloody Face’. In Thredson’s dungeon, we witness him taunt Lana with the dismembered head of her dead lover before enduring queasy scenes of her subjection to violence, rape and the enforced suckling of a grown man. Eventually, Lana escapes only to find she has been impregnated by her sadistic captor.
There is no doubt that Asylum tackles issues of homophobia, sexism, racism, and disability with a signature heavy-handedness that will not redeem it with outraged moralists. Nevertheless, the premise of the entire American Horror Story anthology is to test the limits of horror and morality by pushing every situation or relationship, real or unreal, to its absolutely worst-case scenario. Others will not fail to see through the layers of violence and horror and recognise the irony of a mummy-fixated psychiatrist or the underlying social commentary about a career driven, homosexual woman enduring the horror of misguided psychiatry and enforced motherhood. Like Lana, all of Asylum’s characters are monstrous, in that they are burdened with behaviours that are deemed to threaten society. However, as the series unfolds within the confines of the asylum walls, it digs into the pasts of patients and employees, making the audience question what monstrosity is. Is Shelley’s excessive lust really a sign of insanity or is she, as she claims, a gendered victim of double standards? Did Grace slaughter her father and stepmother because she is criminally and irredeemably violent, or was it really the desperate act of an abused child? Does Sister Jude really believe that all sex is sin, or is she merely acting out an absolution of her own guilty past? The further the series delves into the origins of its characters’ monstrosity, the more it appears that it is the product of other evils.
The berserk and vaguely satirical attitude of the series allows Murphy and Falchuk to slip other cultural controversies under the radar and develop sympathetic bonds with the monstrous, often capturing the humanity of those characters that inflict the worse kinds of cruelties. Monsters, in American Horror Story, are very human. Furthermore, they act as mirrors to our own cultural obsessions with the monstrous. As Sister Jude warns ‘if you look in the face of evil, evil is gonna look right back at you’. At the heart of this is a commentary on the grotesquery of our own fascination with violence and monstrosity, a commentary that began with Leo and Teresa but surely finds its antithesis in Lana’s reinvention at the end of the series. Lana more than survives her ordeal; it makes her a star. In 1969 we revisit Lana a year after her escape and witness her reinvention as a celebrity author, peddling in sensationalised and salacious versions of her own heroism and victimisation. As she entertains her fans at a reading of her acclaimed book Maniac: One Woman’s Story of Survival, the camera pans the audience as they sit like evangelicals at a Revival, communing with Lana and her trauma as well as devouring every morbid detail. We cannot help but notice the self-conscious allusion to our own macabre fascination with horror; the same fascination that keeps us glued to our seats throughout American Horror Story and seen the show garner several Emmys, a People’s Choice Award and, for one of its returning actresses, Lange, a Golden Globe. Rather than a criticism of its audience, Lana’s narrative is an exploitation of the public and social ceremony of monstrosity that offers an accomplished and insightful response to the outrage and affront aimed at it by some critics. Horror, it suggests, is an extreme form of art but it is also something from which we take comfort as well as fear, re-evaluate meaning and shape the boundaries of morality.
Eleanor is Television Editor for Twisted Tales and recently completed her doctoral thesis in English Literature at Lancaster University. Her research concerns the conjunction of Catholicism and sexuality in Gothic fiction and horror film and focuses on its trans-national and contemporary contexts. She is especially interested in the post-secular theologies of transgressive texts and their relationship to history, nationalism, politics and gender theory. Eleanor has published on the topics of religion, female sexuality, cinema and spectacle in relation to postmodern Gothic writing and has previously held the post of postgraduate representative on the editorial board for Gothic Studies.
Saturday, 25 October 2014
V20: Dark Ages is currently on Kickstarter.
DM: What is V20: Dark Ages and how does it relate to Vampire: The Masquerade?
DH: V20: Dark Ages is a spinoff of Vampire: The Masquerade, and Vampire: 20th Anniversary Edition in specific. It's a complete, standalone game set in the mid-thirteenth century. You're playing at a time of impending upheaval and change. In Dark Ages, we're looking over the hills ahead to the Anarch Revolt and the events that cause the formation of the Camarilla and Sabbat. In the modern nights, the Camarilla represents a sort of cultured, ‘proper’ order, whereas the Sabbat represents fanaticism and chaos. The Camarilla is a conspiracy to deny the existence of the impending end of the world. The Sabbat fights that impending end with fire and fury. Without those inherent structures, Dark Ages characters have a lot more room for individual interpretation of our world. We're in a time that redefines what it means to be a vampire clan, because old clans are falling, and new ones are rising.
1243 is a good time to be a vampire. Of course there are no cell phones or mirrorshades, but the lack of modern forensics and mass media empower vampires to make really hard choices. V20: Dark Ages isn't about whether or not you can kill those that cause you problems; you can. But should you?
DM: Does this create a sense of impunity with regards to the treatment of mortals? For instance, can vampires openly rule cities and raise armies with which to wage war?
DH: It can mean that. What it really means though is, humanity is able to shepherd itself. If you do something egregious and obvious, you’d better have the might to back it up, because there’s always someone ready to knock you down. Maybe it’s a rival vampire. Maybe it’s a witch hunting organization. Maybe it’s just an unruly mob. So yes, some vampires openly rule. But those are typically exceptions, and typically very temporary. The human spirit does not like being broken.
DM: How did you become the developer for the new Dark Ages line?
DH: I've been working with White Wolf/CCP/Onyx Path as a freelancer for about eight years now. I got my start with Werewolf: The Forsaken. Over the years, I've developed a few books, edited a few, and written a ton. There's not much of a grand story behind how I became V20: Dark Ages developer. I've just always had a passion for Dark Ages Vampire, and for Vampire: The Masquerade. When our annual pitch session came up a couple of years ago, I put together a pitch document explaining my vision for a relaunched Dark Ages line. The powers-that-be liked it enough to put me at the helm of the project.
DM: Does the historical setting fundamentally alter the ways in which vampiric society sees itself?
DH: Our historical setting, as I noted, is different in that it redefines clans and sects. It's a time of flux and upheaval. You don't have a Camarilla and Sabbat. We're not entirely sure what clan means, or what it's going to mean. Instead of huge, world-spanning conspiracies, vampires are held together by "Roads", which are religions or philosophies that help them stave off their deeper monstrosity. For example, characters following the Road of Kings believe vampires are better than humans, and that hierarchy is the only true way to order and reason. They believe some vampires are followers, and some are leaders. They just believe they are the natural leaders. Characters following the Road of the Beast are their polar opposite. They believe structure is a way to keep down the spirit, and oppress the perfect predator within every vampire’s heart. So they eschew law and order on principle. Then we get vampires on the Road of Heaven, who believe vampirism comes from divinity, and that every vampire has a higher purpose in their god’s great plan.
Another big difference is, there's no New York. There's no Chicago. London had less than 40,000 people at the time. Half the major cities in Europe were in the Italian peninsula. This means you can't have vast cities with 200 vampires. Everything's very personal, very visceral. You can't have a gang of ten vampires hating you, because that probably means the entire city is against you. There's also a sense of wonder and exploration we can't really experience in the modern world. V20: Dark Ages is set primarily around Europe. But new trade routes are opening, and with them, new parts of the world open to our vampires. We see vampires coming in from places unknown, bringing their own customs and exciting stories.
DM: To what extent will the core V20: Dark Ages book support storytellers and players who find the setting appealing but are largely unfamiliar with the historical period? Do you recommend any history books for those who really want to immerse themselves in the Dark Ages?
DH: We actually provided some tools for building a believable, authentic-feeling world. As well, I’d consider one of our chief inspirations, Monty Python alumnus Terry Jones’s Medieval Lives and The Crusades. They did a great job of showing what night to night, day to day life in the medieval world was like for the random person, not just for the romanticized nobility.
DM: Given the centrality of Christianity to European culture during the Dark Ages, does religion play a greater role in terms of threats and the mythology of the World of Darkness in that era?
DH: Christianity is a very important element in Vampire: The Dark Ages. The church sometimes acts as a balancing force against the vampires. Sometimes, vampires wield the unknowing church as a weapon. The Crusades are particularly hard on vampires, because there’s a lot of fire, and a lot of daytime fighting. Vampires are urban creatures, and the Crusades destroyed cities. For example, the vampires of Constantinople aren’t that lucky in this era.
Then again, we want to express that while Christianity is a dominant force in this time and place, it’s not the beginning or end of vampiric existence. After all, many vampires in this era are old enough to remember a time before Christianity. Many have seen stark changes in church doctrine, so they view mortal religion with a cynical eye. We also have influence from pagan cultures, Celtic witchcraft, Slavic animism, classic Egyptian mythology, Islam, and numerous other topics.
DM: Does vampiric magic play a greater role in a period when belief in the supernatural was far more prevalent than modern nights?
DH: Remarkably bigger. In fact, our section on blood magic is huge, and in the Kickstarter, we’ve been able to nearly double that space into a whole glut of sorcery. If you’re interested in magic of all stripes, you can get it in the Dark Ages. From strange Egyptian rituals, to rituals for digging up the unholy blackness of the abyss, to demon summoning, to spells to mitigate problems with medieval travel.
DM: What are the unique horror role-playing experiences that V20: Dark Ages will offer players and storytellers?
DH: This book asks questions which evoke horror. And in places, different questions than your classic Vampire game. What does it mean to be immensely, frighteningly powerful? What does it mean to be alien and withdrawn from the world? What does it mean to be able to end a life the way a normal person could cut a rope? What does it mean to live without consequence? The questions we’re asking with V20: Dark Ages are all about immersing yourself in this terrifying body that you are both in awe of, and feel sorry for.
DM: How has the release of work-in-progress chapters from V20: Dark Ages through the Onyx Path website influenced your design process?
DH: It’s been wonderful. While sometimes it can be challenging to navigate signal through noise, it changes the process entirely. Usually when you develop a game, it’s a one-way street. You write, design, write, design, edit, and publish, and hand this product out to the world. With this method, it’s a back and forth process. You can gauge thematic elements and really feel out what people are interested in.
DM: What are your plans for the V20: Dark Ages Kickstarter? How would you like to develop the line beyond the core book?
DH: What we’re doing is building two companion books. The Tome of Secrets is basically a companion volume of rules and new material for the game. Right now, it features a ton of new sorcery, rules for mass combat, words on vampire knightly orders, and other weirdness. It also features letters in the game universe between characters, showing off the era and setting. The other companion volume is a fiction anthology. Every stretch goal we hit either adds a story to the anthology, or more rules content to the Tome of Secrets. Right now, every backer on the Kickstarter gets whatever they pledged for, as well as the Tome of Secrets and fiction anthology. So it’s a great buy-in, you get at least three books if you even just spring for the PDF level.
Beyond the Kickstarter, I’d really like to see Dark Ages grow into a full line. I have ideas for setting guides and more material for Asian and African vampires. I’d also like to build on the world with a Dark Ages Werewolf book, Changeling book, maybe Mage and Inquisitor, and other stuff. But that all depends on how successful we are. This Kickstarter’s the first real hand out to the community to find out just how viable a Dark Ages line might be.
Monday, 8 September 2014
Join us for readings by authors from Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease, a horror anthology for our hard times, followed by a panel discussion and Q&A. Co-editor of Horror Uncut, Tom Johnstone, claims this anthology ushers in a ‘new era of socially engaged but entertaining and darkly funny horror fiction, which may not change the world but will, I hope, change the way we look at it’. From supernatural body horror to systemic acts of cruelty, this event will both challenge and entertain.
After reading stories about the dismantling of the NHS by the late Joel Lane in the magazine Black Static and The Fourth Black Book of Horror, Tom Johnstone suggested they collaborate on an austerity-themed anthology. The result was Horror Uncut (Gray Friar Press), the first book Tom has worked on as an editor. Tom will be reading the story that inspired the anthology, Joel’s ‘A Cry for Help’, which offers a darkly satirical representation of someone complicit in the privatization of the NHS.
Laura Mauro’s ‘Ptichka’ offers insight into the devastating consequences of anti-immigrant rhetoric, tying the isolation and alienation created by government policy to a very intimate tale of pregnancy and body horror.
Rosanne Rabinowitz’s ‘Pieces of Ourselves’ starts with a demonstration against austerity that builds to violent kettling by the police. One activist escapes with a light wound, but his growing anxiety manifests in the transmogrifying skin that peels away from it.
Sunday, 7 September 2014
For more information, visit the Darker Days Radio website.
DM: How did you become presenters on Darker Days Radio?
CH: My involvement with Darker Days started initially with the forums, suggesting various ideas for WoD games, and ideas for the Secret Frequency segment. One of note was the Devil Dog myth that is attached to my home town, and is also the origin of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. When the show was undergoing some changes in host line up I contributed a number of recordings of ‘Rapid Fire Game Summaries’ which covered almost all of the nWoD games. I was going to record one for the Ghouls book for Vampire: The Requiem, but it was deemed easier if I just be a guest on the show to talk about that book. And that was the start of my own regular appearances. Since then, Mike and I have shared responsibilities with regards to recording the show, editing, and managing the social media aspects of the podcast. And, when time permits, I've done some video editing for the show, and edit the fanzine.
BP: I've been a listener to the podcast since episode 3 or 4, following a post on a White Wolf fan forum by then-host Vince. After Mike and Chris took it over, I started pestering Mike about the show needing someone with a stronger focus on the cWoD lines. Eventually, he agreed and they asked me to join as the voice of the cWoD.
DM: In what ways has the podcast evolved over the past five years?
MA: We've evolved primarily through experimentation and a lot of it has actually worked! The two most successful experiments have been the introduction of Forgotten Lore, a WoD ezine, and our foray into actual play episodes. Intriguingly, actual plays are role-playing game sessions released as downloadable podcasts - a format that Chris and I both dislike. However, the two actual plays we've released have been noticeably more popular than our normal episodes, so listeners can expect a few more of those in Season 6.
BP: Darker Days has grown from a tightly-focused podcast covering the cWoD and nWoD game lines to a broader and more diverse - both in terms of topics as well as guests and presenters - outlet covering gaming of all types through the various Darklings we produce while still managing to remain the premiere WoD podcast on the main show.
DM: What are your views on the state of the horror role-playing scene in 2014?
MA: Horror role-playing games are quite strong and will continue to be. Games like Vampire and Call of Cthulhu highlight the benefits of a tabletop role-playing format compared to video games, movies, and novels by providing an experience tailored to the players. Other static formats can't compete with a good storyteller out to scare his players.
BP: We live in something of a golden age for role-playing games, both in general and in the horror sub-genre. Divorcing RPGs from the ‘kick in the door, kill the monster, loot the tomb’ of several decades ago (something White Wolf pioneered) and focusing more on the story aspects of gaming has lead to some major innovations in the community. The vampires in, for example, Night's Black Agents are far more horrifying and complex than the 8HD undead from AD&D’s Monster Manual.
DM: Do you think that the rise of Onyx Path has shaken up the World of Darkness property or has it just marked the resurrection of a popular formula?
MA: Yes and yes. The nWoD game line is being spiced up with the God-Machine Chronicle rules release, leading to more player agency in the game through Condition and Beat mechanics. But on the other hand, Onyx Path has resurrected the cWoD games, retaining the game structure that took role-playing by storm in 1991. This two-pronged approach has been very well accepted by WoD fans, allowing classic players to play as they always have, but also providing a modern game approach for story gamers.
CH: Onyx Path certainly has pushed on a lot of changes, both in terms of how the writers interact with the fans, and with the way settings are approached. Onyx Path is clearly not afraid of trying out new gaming concepts, and re-examining old and tired tropes in their settings in order to modernize them. I think this can be seen both in the V20 and Requiem lines, which now more than ever are distinct settings. CWoD and nWoD could have simply just trundled on with more and more supplements, or simple reprinting of old content. But what we have instead are new treatments of the settings, while still respecting that which has gone before.
BP: Onyx Path has definitely shaken things up. To use a topic I'm familiar with from the past few episodes of
Darker Days, they've taken what could have been a dull and much-gone-over-before concept like demons and made them into a supernatural espionage game of spy-versus-spy-versus-nigh-omnipotent-entity. Nobody else in the industry has had such inventive interpretations and it's a testament to the company's creativity that I look forward to each new release with such excitement nearly 20 years after picking up my first WoD book.
DM: How does Darker Days link up to the growing online community supporting horror role-playing?
CH: We are also more than happy to discuss other horror games, and people can drop off reviews for different games, highlight interesting Kickstarter campaigns, and show off other interesting horror-related media (I paint lots of toy soldiers, mainly for Privateer Press' Warmachine/Hordes war games and associated Iron Kingdoms RPG, plus minis for the defunct Rackham game Hybrid - these games having a lot of horror content).
BP: Like Chris said, we're happy to discuss other games in the horror genre or even other non-horror games (and maybe how to add a touch of horror to them), but I think we'll always want to keep our focus on the WoD game lines. That being said, personally I've begun playing a miniature skirmish game called Malifaux that incorporates a bit of horror along with steampunk, fantasy and wuxia elements into it's setting and minis.
DM: What are your plans for Season 6 and beyond?
MA: Darker Days is pushing for more diversity in the upcoming season. That means interviewing more of the writers and developers (given that there is another nWoD game announced at Gencon this year, plus loads of other products), while not treading much of the same ground with the same men. If we can get the right team together (because there is never enough time for just us to do these things!) it would be great to get out another issue of our fanzine, Forgotten Lore. It's a great opportunity for gamers to show off their ideas, writing, and also to have a go at layout and editing.
CM: Darker Days has added a new Darkling series called 'Gossip Ghouls', which is a show with content and opinions that covers horror media in general. 'Gossip Ghouls' is also different because the hosts are not the normal group of guys. That show is fronted by Samantha Handley (budding writer, role-player and my wife) and Michelle Flamm (larper, cosplayer and computer game designer).
And personally, because I have a vested interest, I would hope to do some more Darklings about Fading Suns (a space opera RPG with a good dash of horror that I am a freelance writer for) given it is essentially a kissing cousin of WoD. I have worked on material for upcoming Fading Suns books that focus on the Merchant Guild, and on the darker elements of the setting (psychics, demons, cults, etc).
BP: More Darklings, new segments in the main show, more guests from Onyx Path and other places, more everything, really!