Category Archives: politics

Women in Horror Month

Enter, you. You’re a writer. You’re a horror writer. You’re a woman.

***

You go to see a new horror movie. It is filled with young ladies in peril, and then in various states of undress (still in peril), and then in various states of dissection (still in undress). The camera fawns over their destroyed bodies. The one who entered the movie broken gets to live. It’s the reward for her suffering. You come home disappointed. “Well, I could have told you it was going to be like that,” your male roommate says. “If there’s a half-naked girl in the trailer, you know the movie’s going to be rapey.”

***

You are an ambassador of your gender, so you better be good: in your writing, in your attitude, in your openness to overture. Someone generous is taking a chance on you, so don’t disappoint, or you’re the last lady horror writer they will ever try. Don’t scare them off.

***

it-follows-date-prep-mirror

Women in Horror month comes around and everybody’s a statistician. Editors lay bare their numbers, and many outlets’ submission data does show that women submit fiction less than men, a fact duly blamed on the female writers for not submitting enough. Not being brave. Of course, you as a woman have never applied for a job for which you feel underqualified, and you have never negotiated a raise. In your current workplace, you don’t engage in as much self-promotion as your male peers. This isn’t just because you’re trying to be nice. You know that a good girl follows the rules and waits her turn and doesn’t push her luck, or herself, onto others. After all, you wouldn’t want to come across as too abrasive. You also notice that some of these outlets only ever seem to publish men, so no wonder you wouldn’t have submitted there. You know when you’re not wanted.

***

You write a story that includes some discussion of gender issues. You worry you’re overdoing it. You worry you’re going to be labeled as a writer with a political agenda, mostly because you are a woman writing about gender. If you were a man, you would be writing a story. But you are a woman and you are writing a polemic. You do it anyway.

***

You are invited to an anthology. You hope it is not just because you are a woman, or because you are young, or because you are (half) a minority. But even if it is, oh well. You believe the editors are trying to do the right thing.

***

b0b8dcdd8222b22c985a1104c4c02164-1000x563

Women in Horror Month is here and it’s a giant popularity contest, even more than writing already is: let’s-name-all-the-female-horror-writers-we-can-possibly-name! You don’t look at the lists, because you know you’re still not on them, and that worm of self-doubt that lives inside your brain doesn’t need any more to chew on (why do you even try?), thank you. Then you feel bad and jealous, and bad because you feel jealous. You re-read the manifesto, “In Which We Teach You How To Be A Woman In Any Boys’ Club,” and remember that progress for one is progress for all. Besides, you feel shitty about promoting yourself anyway – how dare you, who the fuck are you? Then you feel shitty about not promoting yourself – you’re a dumb ass and you deserve everything you get.

***

You go to see another new horror movie, a sequel to one of your all-time favorites. You anticipate that it will be terrible, and it is. It has also introduced a brand new rape-and-captivity subplot to explain the origin of all the evil. It’s our punishment for her suffering. The fact that this movie was made is punishment enough. You wonder what it is with blind old recluses and rape these days. The young female lead rests on her side in bed, her breasts lovingly pressed together by her tight white camisole.

***

When you were young, you couldn’t count any women among your favorite writers. You can’t understand any of the female characters you read as humans, let alone as women. The boys in your American Literature class chortle about them, about how their male creators defined them solely by their “easy” sexuality. Your favorite writer in high school admitted that he never writes female characters, because he knows he would be bad at it. He’s kind of right. But you are also bad at it, and you are a girl! Your best friend, another girl, tells you after reading your novel draft, “Either you have a serious problem with women, or do.” And you know it’s you. You were raised on classical British literature and you love big heroic adventure arcs (like paladins, more paladins please) and what’s more, you hate yourself. Then you read The Bell Jar, and that changes everything. Then you read The Haunting of Hill House, and that changes everything again.

***

the-witch-final-scene

Congratulations – you have helped fill an anthology’s diversity quota. Collect $200. You hope your story doesn’t convince somebody never to read another lady horror writer.

***

You and your roommate have seen a lot of horror movies: bad ones, good ones, so-bad-they’re-good ones. You have also noticed that you have never seen male rape depicted in a straight-up genre horror movie. “That would be the worst thing,” your roommate says, shuddering. “As a guy? That would be the most terrifying thing to watch.” You reply, flatly, “Yeah, well, that’s how it is for women, all the time. And we just have to deal. We just have to get used to it.” On-screen, some anonymous woman is crying and afraid.

***

An anthology you are in is accused of reverse discrimination because it is populated solely by female writers. It is accused of having a political agenda (because reinforcing the status quo is never political; only disrupting it): promoting shoddy women over competent men. Other people launch defenses: you have to over-correct to break structural inequality; many anthologies are essentially male-only because no female writers were chosen or submitted to be chosen; it’s important for our society to make sure marginalized voices are heard and the male voice permeates SF/F/H as it is. Meanwhile, you are hit with a soft psychosomatic blow to the stomach. Oh no. What if you are actually shit?

***

darling-2015-movie-mickey-keating-3

You attend a Superbowl watch party with about 50 other people. When they air the trailer for the next season of Stranger Things, everyone cheers loudly. You are much more subdued. Your coworker leans over and confesses he has yet to watch this show. You say, “Yeah, it’s good. I’m not as enthusiastic about it as most of these guys, because…” “Because you’re a writer,” he guesses. “…Because I didn’t like how it treated its female characters,” you finish. “Like I said,” he says, laughing. “Because you’re a writer.”

 ***

You are lucky. You were supported, by both men and women with more clout and experience and influence and power than you. You try to believe in yourself enough to trust that this support had nothing to do with quotas, nothing to do with anything except your writing. You believe, as good girls always do, that SF/F/H is generally meritocratic – certainly more so than your day job, anyway.

 ***

You have been published since you were 21, and you still feel like an interloper who wouldn’t fit in and wouldn’t have anything intelligent to say. So you are still, mostly, quiet. You find it amazing how confident men are in talking about their work (young men, old men, much-younger-than-you men), how confident they are in talking to older and more established writers, how easy it must be for them to see themselves in their idols. How nice it must be, you think, to feel like the place at the table is already set for you.

 ***

It’s Women in Horror Month, and you read some article asking Where Are All the Women, Are They Just Not Writing?  And you slowly bash your head against the wall.

 ***

Movies Pictured: It Follows; Under The Shadow; The Witch; Darling

Soundtrack: “Sick” – Salem

Tagged ,

“Wish You Were Here” [the playlist]

There’s not a lot more I have to say about “Wish You Were Here” that I didn’t already tell Christian Coleman in my interview – he even asked about the inevitable playlist. So I’ll just share the full list – a mix of tongue-in-cheek commentary on “third world democracy” and its hustlers from “Paper Planes” and mystical exoticism from “Voodoo in My Blood,” and the genuine emotion that nonetheless underwrites motivations in this story. Ultimately, that’s all I want from horror set in foreign lands: to at least remember that the foreigners are also people, who deserve to be just as well-rounded as the tourists.

tumblr_mhnlvc9wmk1qg39ewo1_500

“Wish You Were Here” is part of Nightmare magazine’s People of Colo(u)r Destroy Horror issue, with original fiction edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

“Paper Planes” – M.I.A.: All I wanna do is [bang bang bang] and [ka-ching] and take your money. Third world democracy, yeah I got more records than the KGB, so uh, no funny business.

“The Keepers” – Santigold: I walk by with smoke in my eyes, like we don’t know where we’ve been. That’s it, boy, just state your case, you’re just as wrong as you were then. We’re the keepers – while we sleep in America, our house is burning down.

“Voodoo in My Blood” – Massive Attack: Barely, barely grieving. Keep the front door open. Wipe that cheeky grin and come on down. [Fun fact: Rose is named after Rosamund Pike – partly because of this video! See if you can spot the other celebrities (they played couples in Hollywood movies) among the tourists!]

“Manifest Destiny” – Zola Jesus: You gotta help me out. You gotta make it happen for me. How will we survive? Just let your spirit rise and don’t worry about the rest. [This is the song I obsessively listened to while writing this.]

“Soccer Game” – Johann Johannsson (Sicario OST): [instrumental, but if you remember this ending scene in the movie – the soccer game punctuated by gunfire – you know exactly why I included it here]

Tagged

“There is a Bear in the Woods” [the playlist]

“There is a Bear in the Woods” is named after a Ronald Reagan campaign ad, from 1984. It’s a classic in high-strategy fear-mongering, and I recommend watching it while listening to the soundtrack to The Witch, for full horrific effect.

My story, “There is a Bear in the Woods,” is the first directly political (that is, about politics) story I’ve published that’s been set in the U.S. instead of Indonesia. One other is forthcoming, at this time. “There is a Bear in the Woods” is also the first to be set in the same universe as a series of to-be-written novels that is very close to my heart. Part of the reason I’ve stayed away from American politics is because I didn’t want to publically commit to writing these books. But now I am, so let me say a little about it, because I think it’s as good an explanation as anything else to what drove “There is a Bear in the Woods.”

I wrote the first version of these books – the trilogy now named after Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty – from ages twelve through thirteen (1999-2000). They formed books 2 and 3 out of a series of 7 (“just a kid with a pad and a pen and a big imagination”), and they were an absolute mess that demanded suspension bridges for all the disbelief. But when I was in grad school I started toying with the idea of resuscitating and rewriting books 2 and 3. I don’t remember what spurred this decision other than the feeling that I had some thing here, some seedling of an idea, that I thought was worth saving. Many of the details have changed in the intervening years – obviously, I took a buttload of political science classes between points A and B – but at its core, the series is about the following:

An alternate-universe United States is dominated by a politically-corrupt, democratically-elected center-left coalition of parties, called the Alliance. Horrified by the morally-depraved decadence of the Alliance’s long reign, a radical deliverance church and a new conservative opposition join forces to oust the Alliance, and end up installing a tenuous and uniquely American fascist regime. Although the accidental fascists are the antagonists, it’s very important to me that they be kept sympathetic throughout – because otherwise, how would they have been voted in? And yes, because I’m a horror writer, there are a few BOB-like demons involved, but, as reflected in “There is a Bear in the Woods,” the demons came to take advantage of an opening that was entirely manmade.

This story is about a plucky grassroots campaign trying to put one of the would-be fascists, Rick McFarland, into Congress. They, of course, think they’re on a noble cause – literally, saving America. And then they have a fateful campaign stop…

“There is a Bear in the Woods” is in Autumn Cthulhu, edited by Mike Davis.

“I’d Love To Change the World” – Jetta: I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do, so I’ll leave it up to you.

“Aenema” – Tool: Some say we’ll see Armageddon soon. I certainly hope we will. Don’t just call me pessimist. Try and read between the lines. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t welcome any change, my friend.

“2+2=5” – Radiohead: Are you such a dreamer to put the world to rights? It’s the devil’s way now. There is no way out.

[Note: What a perfect video, eh?]

“Coward” – Hans Zimmer: [Instrumental].

[Note: I rarely include soundtrack-like music here, but the combination of title and sound actually make this match perfectly with the appearance of “The Bear.”]

“Warning” – Incubus: All left standing will make millions writing books on the way it should have been.

Tagged ,

“Pro Patria!” [the playlist]

In college I tried to argue that Peter Pan was a post-colonial fable. I based this on the scene where the revolutionary but already somewhat dictatorial Peter, having defeated the imperialistic Captain Hook, puts on Hook’s coat and hat, pantomimes a hook with his hand, and smugly smokes Hook’s pipe in the captain’s chair. For what it’s worth, my professor said she didn’t quite buy it, but that the essay was entertaining.

peter pan

When I first read Robert Chambers’ “The Repairer of Reputations,” it was immediately obvious to me that the psychosis-inducing The King in Yellow needed to be transposed to the unique horror of the post-colonial setting: the fiercely-independent newborn state, warped by centuries of domination by a foreign culture, that more often than not grows up to have a very genocidal adolescence.

History is littered with evidence that “hurt begets hurt.” The great tragedy of post-colonial states is that so many of them are forged in the fantastical hope that humanity can overcome its base, Hobbesian instinct to shamelessly overpower the weak and the different. But as my protagonist in “Pro Patria!” knows, shaking off the bonds of colonial subjugation is incredibly difficult even after the imperial troops have retreated. Your society has become defined and delineated by the colonists’ caste system, your artificial borders are utterly absurd and meaningless, and you learned everything you know about power, leadership, and right-to-rule from your abusive oppressors (in this story’s case, resurrected by the arrival of the foreign treatise on power, The King in Yellow).

In the country I grew up in (Indonesia), like many others, leaders that held onto republican (small r) ideals of individual rights and social contracts and limits to state power were shoved to the side; the rest – the survivors – fell into the same “might makes right” tautology that justified colonial rule, and became proto-fascists, aided by a whole bunch of justifications: the people are too stupid to be free, these are Asian values, Communists are right around the corner. Incidentally, my dad (Farchan Bulkin) was one of those political scientists who ended up shoved to the side, which is part of the reason this horrible cycle is so personal to me. He died two months before Indonesia finally shook off thirty-three years of dictatorship – indirectly brought about by three hundred years of colonial rule – and never had the chance to see Indonesia become the messy-but-free democracy it is today. Colonialism is one of those historical sins that keeps on giving – resurrecting – no matter how fast you try to run from it. Sometimes, the faster you run, the faster it catches up.

“Pro Patria!” is in Cassilda’s Song, edited by Joe Pulver.

“Mezzanine” – Massive Attack: I’m a little curious of you in crowded scenes, and how serene your friends and fiends.

“Declare Independence” – Bjork: Print your own currency. Make your own stamp. Protect your language. Raise your flag (higher, higher). Damn colonists! Ignore their patronizing.

“The Glorious Land” – PJ Harvey: How is our glorious country plowed? Not by iron plows. Our land is plowed by tanks and feet, feet marching.

“Crumbs From Your Table” – U2: You were pretty as a picture, it was all there to see, then your face caught up with your psychology. With a mouth full of teeth, you ate all your friends, and you broke every heart, thinking, “every heart mends.”

“Living on a Thin Line” – The Kinks: All the stories have been told of kings and days of old – but there’s no England now. / Then another leader says, “Break their hearts and break some heads,” is there nothing we can say or do? Blame the future on the past, always lost in blood and guts, and when they’re gone, it’s me and you.

[Note: This is the definitive song about post-colonialism. So much so that I quoted it in my thesis. The British nationalists using this song as a rallying cry need help.]

Tagged ,

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?

Tagged

“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.

Tagged , ,

“Do you still think such-and-such? Do you still believe so-and-so?”

Philip Roth provides a shrewd class in Literary Analysis 101 – a class that a lot of people (readers and writers) apparently didn’t take.  Particularly relevant for people who write about fictional politics and politicians, I might add.

Whoever looks for the writer’s thinking in the words and thoughts of his characters is looking in the wrong direction…

The thought of the novelist lies not in the remarks of his characters or even in their introspection but in the plight he has invented for his characters, in the juxtaposition of those characters and in the lifelike ramifications of the ensemble they make — their density, their substantiality, their lived existence actualized in all its nuanced particulars, is in fact his thought metabolized…

The thought of the writer is embedded everywhere in the course of the novel’s action. The thought of the writer is figured invisibly in the elaborate pattern — in the newly emerging constellation of imagined things — that is the architecture of the book: what Aristotle called simply “the arrangement of the parts,” the “matter of size and order.” The thought of the novel is embodied in the moral focus of the novel…

The novel, then, is in itself his mental world. A novelist is not a tiny cog in the great wheel of human thought. He is a tiny cog in the great wheel of imaginative literature. Finis.

Tagged