The Control Group

I’ve been really digging Emily Carroll’s horror comics. My favorite so far has been the very ghoulish “Out of Skin.”  Her wife Kate Craig’s comic “Heart Of Ice” is great too, especially if you love arctic horror (and who doesn’t?).  

emily carroll

I really admire artists that can draw scary things, mostly because I can’t imagine possessing that delicate of a balance between creative expression and mental control: I am pretty confident that if I ever created anything like one of Junji Ito’s comics, I would immediately burn it for fear of it coming to life. Not that this isn’t something I worry about with writing too – even though I write what I broadly classify as horror (I prefer “dark”), few things that I’ve written actually terrify me in the way that Ju-On, for example, terrifies me, and I think there’s a little part of me that doesn’t want to push that envelope because I’m afraid of my fears manifesting in real life. There are enough horror movies about writers who go forth to learn what fear is and cross one bridge too many (see also: reason I’m not about to go live in an old house for three months to pound out my final draft).

Of course, I have written stories featuring elements that frighten me – “Red Goat Black Goat” probably being the prime example, since that was based off a childhood story that scared the shit out of me, although “Girl I Love You,” “The Five Stages of Grief,” and “Pugelbone” also creep me out – and I haven’t gone crazy. I have “retained control” (get back to me if I ever write a story about crawling ghosts, though).  I’m sure horror illustrators don’t go crazy either (although I still think there’s something about image that is much more powerful than written text). They created it, after all; they control it. I think this is actually at the heart of the reason a lot of people tell horror stories – whether in text or art or film or music – they want to conquer some fleeting thing, some image, some sentence, some idea, that scares them. They want to wrangle it into something they can understand and control.  Which gets to something that Emily Carroll talks about in this interview, something that I’ve sort of dealt with too when people ask me to explain a story like, say, “Absolute Zero”:

So often people will treat that story like it’s a mystery with One True Solution, as though the final panel is a puzzle to be solved, but it really isn’t like that at all. And that was on purpose – growing up, my least favourite part of any horror story was the part towards the end that explained all the scariness away. Because I want to keep away from that in my own work, I made the conscious decision to leave the ending of that story (and preceding events, really) ambiguous and unresolved, in an effort to create a haunting feeling even after the comic ends.

 

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My copy of the Sword and Mythos anthology came in the mail today – my contribution is “Truth Is Order and Order Is Truth,” my second Lovecraftian story after “Red Goat, Black Goat” (and like “RG, BG,” set in Indonesia and published by Innsmouth Free Press, which is awesome).

There are other similarities too. “Red Goat, Black Goat” is named after a Death in June song, “Red Dog Black Dog.”  “Truth Is Order and Order Is Truth” is named after a Der Blutharsch song, “VII” off The Track of the Hunted album.  It’s a funny story of how I started listening to Der Blutharsch, though – somewhere in my freshman dorm lived a girl who had every single Der Blutharsch album, and due to the wonders of wireless internet and the iTunes technology of the time, I could listen to her music.  I was so freaked out and enraptured by them – “III” off When Did Wonderland End? is still one of the best songs I’ve ever heard.  Both Der Blutharsch and Death in June make music I’d characterize as incomprehensible, cinematic, and dark, which is why they’re major writing influences.  It’s music for a Mondo world.  Sometimes there are no lyrics, or the lyrics make no sense — the conclusion of the aforementioned “III,” on the other hand, is basically my writing manifesto: “the murder in your eyes, your journey through darkened skies, your adventure in blood and lies.”

I have been wanting to tell the story at the heart of “Truth Is Order and Order Is Truth” for a long time – it’s a story about a very deeply ingrained piece of Javanese folklore, the Spirit Queen of the South Sea (she’s the reason you are not supposed to wear the color green on Java’s southern beaches; certain old hotels are said to have a room “reserved” for her) – but my previous attempts never quite made it to prime-time.  In one case, the story was written from the perspective of a human princess who had to compete with the all-powerful Spirit Queen for the love of the young king.  Another version told the story from the perspective of one of the Spirit Queen’s handmaidens, who’d run away to try to become human by working in a fish factory.  With “Truth Is Order and Order Is Truth,” I finally realized that I had to tell the story from the Spirit Queen’s own point of view, and I had to make her ruthless.  Combining her with the ruthlessness of the Lovecraft mythos made perfect sense, and this story that I’d been wrestling with for years finally fell into place.

Here are a few other songs that inspired — facilitated, as you’d say in international development — “Truth Is Order and Order Is Truth”:

  • “Blood, Milk, and Sky” – White Zombie [if I ever publish an anthology of stories exclusively about Indonesia, I'd call it Blood, Milk, and Sky.  Because we were taught from a young age that the red of the Indonesian flag represents blood, and the white represents purity... and Indonesia is not so much a fatherland or motherland, but literally the "land where I shed my blood."  And that's called militarism!]
  • “Isis” – Yeah Yeah Yeahs ["if they're still up high, we'll throw them to the sea/ watch the murder of the wilds to the music of the deep"]
  • “Gorgon” – Scary Valentine [hooray for finally being able to find this on YouTube]
  • “Serpentia” – Danzig ["my little girl, won't you shed your skin/ little goddess, why don't you slither in"]
  • “Exterminating Angel” – The Creatures ["swarms of angels come to kill your sons/ and there's nothing but black holes where the stars should have been... poor little rich thing/ poor little bleeding heart"]
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good prose is like a windowpane

From George Orwell‘s essay “Why I Write”:

I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a POLITICAL purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

Orwell defines political purpose thusly – and it’s a great definition (emphasis mine, because boy how I used to argue that, usually to people who really didn’t care about the issue one way or another and concluded only that I was a little cray):

(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

Anyway, ever wonder what dictators read?

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how I learned to stop worrying and love the written word

Written two years before I was born, Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become a Writer Or, Have You Earned This Cliche?” strikes awful close to home, and is probably more useful than any earnest how-to guide.

In high school, I once had a creative non-fiction assignment given back to me riddled with “C”s, for cliches – it was horrifying.  The grade was “Writing = A.  Creative Non-Fiction = F.”  Luckily the whole class by-in-large failed the assignment, so I got the chance for a manically-written do-over describing, in entirety, what I saw on television as I channel-surfed, so there was something about Tiger Woods and something about Applebee’s, I think.  I got an A that time.  Dr. Cognard was the best teacher I’ve ever had.  She also memorably told me, “why should we give a fuck about [one of my two main characters]?”  Tough question!

  • First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/ missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an early age – say, 14. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at 15 you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire.
  • Make up anagrams of his old girlfriend’s name and name all of your socially handicapped characters with them.
  • The only happiness you have is writing something new, in the middle of the night, armpits damp, heart pounding, something no one has yet seen. You have only those brief, fragile, untested moments of exhilaration when you know: you are a genius. Understand what you must do. Switch majors.
  • Say: ”Mom, I like to write.”  She’ll say: ”Sure you like to write. Of course. Sure you like to write.”
  • Be glad you know these things. Be glad you are not just a writer. Apply to law school.
  • From here on in, many things can happen. But the main one will be this: You decide not to go to law school after all, and, instead, you spend a good, big chunk of your adult life telling people how you decided not to go to law school after all. Somehow you end up writing again. Perhaps you go to graduate school. Perhaps you work odd jobs and take writing courses at night. Perhaps you are working and writing down all the clever remarks and intimate personal confessions you hear during the day. Perhaps you are losing your pals, your acquaintances, your balance.
  • Scowl fiercely. Tell them you’re a walking blade.
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do what you love what you do

From an interview with Austin Kleon, on how to be a working writer – this is something I realize that I’ve been chasing as well, but it’s harder than you might think when your “life” revolves around policy/political work.  I’ve still got to put in all the life-absorbing, time-consuming effort that my friends put in to their jobs/careers – not to mention their personal quests for self-improvement (yoga! meet new people! cook something that isn’t ramen!) – before I can think about writing with the few hours that I have between getting off the metro and passing out.  It’s not easy.

“If I’ve taken risks in my life, they have been extremely calculated; I try to save the real risk for the work. My favorite quote is by Gustave Flaubert, who said, ‘Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.’ That’s my favorite quote about creativity, and that is always how I’ve tried to live.”

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“bad houses hate our warmth and our human-ness”

Title quote from one of my favorite monologues on haunted houses, in Rose Red (which itself is heavily inspired by The Haunting of Hill House).  The speaker is, of course, a ghost who embodies the “bad house” in question.

The Paris Review has a great essay on the modern economic context of haunted houses.  It touches not only on economic crisis but Jentsch’s (“where one is unclear as to whether an object or figure or a person is inanimate or somehow alive”) and Freud’s (“Uncanny is what one calls everything that was meant to remain secret and hidden, and has come into the open”) definition of the uncanny, as well as a place the author calls the Happy Murder Castle.  It’s a winning combo that digs into the psychology of horror:

The Happy Murder Castle was disquieting, uncanny, possessed of an uneasy sense I’ve rarely felt in any structure; I’ll admit there are times I’m tempted to call it “haunted.” We tell ourselves ghost stories perhaps because we truly believe in the paranormal—or perhaps because we just need a word, a term, a story for that vague feeling that would be too silly to admit otherwise.

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