Readers of this blog will know of my enthusiasm for the fiction of Quentin S. Crisp (who is, as every interview seems required to clarify, no relation to the gay writer and raconteur; unlike the latter, Quentin S. was born with the name). His novel "Remember You're A One-Ball!" was one of my favorite books of 2011, and his collection All God's Angels, Beware! contains one of my favorite classical weird tales of all time, "Ynys-y-Plag." His collection Morbid Tales also includes strong work. Quentin's new collection from Eibonvale Press, Defeated Dogs, is out this month. To accompany its release, I've interviewed Quentin on his life, his writing, his worldview, and his plans for the future. At about 10,000 words it's a long interview, but I think worth the space. Let's see if you agree:
What, aside from inertia, is keeping you alive these days?
This is very much to the point, which I appreciate. It has to be said, inertia definitely plays a part, and probably a very large one. Perhaps I should refer readers to the question in which I mention Dostoyevksy, and specifically his story ‘The Dream of a Ridiculous Man’, because I feel this has a lot of bearing on this question.
I feel I should be honest about this – the idea of ‘a reason to live’ is not something I take for granted at all. I struggle with it a great deal. Some time back, I read Tolstoy’s A Confession, and I see he also struggled very much with it. In that text, Tolstoy equates life itself with faith, and this is something I understand. To lack faith, for me, at least, is also to be deficient in life-force. And yet I do go on. Is it really just inertia?
I think I very much want to believe that there is good in people. If there is good in people, then there is reason to live. In fact, if we believe morality is possible, this surely involves a belief that there is good in people. Therefore, there’s a distinct case for saying that it’s the moral thing to do to believe that there is a reason to live. But, as we know, human experience is complex, and there are also plenty of reasons to doubt… For me, nonetheless, the good in people is inextricably linked with morality and a reason to live, and therefore, when doubt is cast on one of these, doubt is cast on all.
Similarly, when doubt is cast upon the doubt that has been cast upon one of these, then doubt is also cast upon the doubt that has been cast on all of these. Maybe doubt of doubt is one thing that keeps me going. I believe it is.
I think there’s also something to be said for relative truths, which are the realm of psychology. In ‘Residents Only’, which is, in my opinion, one of Aickman’s very best stories, there’s a line that goes, “Few transactions, in this world or any other, are more personal than a mediumistic séance. With great good fortune, the seeker may be told where to find the lost key to the medicine chest. He will not learn the secret of the universe…” To be able to use the key to the medicine chest, I think, we have to be able to feel that relative truth is of value. Perhaps it is of value because it has some relation to the absolute.
Anyway, I continue to seek out these keys for myself.
Describe some incident from your past that you think might sum up some aspect of your life, or reveal something about you that readers don't know.
Well, I hesitate before answering this, and for a number of reasons. In the UK, there was a recent news story about a 17-year-old police commissioner who had to quit her position because of some remarks she’d made years previously on Twitter. One of the big cons of the internet, of course, that we will increasingly be made aware of. So, I basically have a choice between stories that are compromising, embarrassing, boring, sound like I’m boasting, or some combination of those four.
So, after some thought, I’m going to go straight for the tabloid headlines and talk about an occasion when I had mushroom tea as a teenager.
I suppose I was about thirteen or fourteen. For reasons that I don’t now recall, I had the house to myself. I always managed to avoid the typical scenario where your place gets trashed by your drunken guests, because that’s the kind of person I’ve been, but on this occasion three friends (I won’t give their real names) came round to enjoy an evening of music and relaxation, and two of them brought what I recall as many hundreds of liberty caps. Tea was made, and the pot was full of them. I think we also ingested some without tea. I have a clear memory that, when the tea had been drunk by all, I scooped out the remains from inside the teapot and swallowed all I could.
Two friends, Dallow and Spicer, had to leave (or chose to) relatively early, leaving me with Pinky. As I recall, we were having a pleasant enough time until, for some reason, questions of identity began to arise in my head. I must have been recollecting past words and actions and wondering who they really belonged to, and I grew cold. Soon enough I was struck by a ghastly truth – my entire life had been one grotesque and abominable lie. The whole thing was impossibly absurd. I remember even now the taste of that feeling, though it is, in true Lovecraftian tradition, impossible to convey in words. I don’t know how long I was like this, since time had become very strange. It felt like many hours, but I think it must have been more like fifteen minutes. Anyway, things got pretty bad. I tried to convey to Pinky, who was sitting in the rocking chair, beaming, that I was losing my mind, but he just told me not to worry about it. Taking stock of the situation – my complete loss of identity and my inability to resume a life of grotesque and hollow lies – I decided that the only possible course of action was to make a phone call to one of my parents, explain the situation, apologise for not taking good care of my mind, and request that they please send me to a mental institution.
I was on the verge of doing this, but I hesitated. Was I missing something? I ran the situation over in my head. Was there some way that I could reclaim my sanity? Again, it’s impossible to reproduce my thoughts and sensations, but they went something like this: I asked myself, considering the fact that everything is a lie, anyway, is it really any better for me to live a lie by drooling in a padded cell banging my head against a wall than it is to live the lie of more or less fitting in with the daily absurdity that human beings call normal (although rather less fitting in in my case, which is another variant of this whole absurdity)? I concluded that there was no criterion by which I could say it was a better thing to live the padded cell lie. Well, I asked myself, was it all that unpleasant to live the lie I had been living? If I lived it again, would anyone notice I was living a lie, beyond them simply thinking I am weird in the way they already did? No, I concluded on both counts – it was not really so unpleasant, and no one would notice. Was I able to do it again? I did it before, I told myself, so why not? Why not live the lie and to hell with it? And that is precisely what I did. And do you know, that the moment I made that decision, I felt myself lifted up from the dungeons of damnation to the heights of mushroomy empyrean? Purple prose aside, it is true.
While I can’t exactly say ‘I’ve never looked back’, nonetheless, I can’t help thinking I made the right decision.
After recovering in this way, feeling myself overcome with relief and bliss, it occurred to me (because I’m not an entirely selfish person) to think of Dallow and Spicer, and I said to Pinky (having explained a little), “But, we’ve got to go to Dallow’s place now!!! Dallow and Spicer must be going through what I’ve just been through and they’ll need our help!” I urged him again and again, but somehow he dissuaded me. He, anyway, at no point had had a bad trip. Speaking to Dallow and Spicer about all this days later, I learnt that both of them had simply gone to bed, bored, rather disappointed that the liberty caps had not had the desired effect.
I think this little incident taught me a bit of a lesson about subjectivity. For one thing, influenced by the same chemicals, in the same room, the same person can experience both hell and heaven. Secondly, influenced by the same chemicals, one person might experience heaven and/or hell, and another might simply yawn and go to bed.
On the occasions I remember this adventure, too, it makes me think that, when people say, “There’s no going back once you’ve seen the void” that it’s really a load of rot. There is a going back. Not only that, but there’s a skating around, a zigzagging through, a dwelling within, a hopping in and out of, and many other things of that kind.
And, you know, U.G. Krishnamurti was very interested in dairy products. And that’s why we love him. And that’s the way life is.
I’m reminded of a story I was told of a hermit of some stripe – a good egg who wrestled with the madness of solitude. And, apparently, he always maintained a supply of Maxwell House coffee.
Just as a kind of p.s. to this, I don’t want to encourage the irresponsible use of etc., but for the sake of damage limitation, if any person out there does find themselves in the middle of a bad trip, wondering what to do, my personal advice is this – apart from the very basic thing of remembering that it’s a subjective state of mind that will pass, if there’s any way you can access the songs of Laurel and Hardy, please do. It is my belief there is absolutely no fuel for bad trips in them at all. I would especially recommend ‘I Want to be in Dixie’ (the title seems to vary) from the film Way Out West.
How did your aesthetics develop? That is-- putting the question less pompously-- how did you first encounter the forms and genres (Japanese literature, weird fiction, or any other influences) that shaped your notions of meaningful fiction? Do you think there's some link among those forms and genres that defines your aesthetic, or does it contain multitudes?
Potentially, the answer to this question could be a book, since aesthetics is a nebulous field, and I’ve had my whole life to be influenced by various things aesthetically. Therefore, the challenge for me is to give a simple answer, which I’ll attempt to do.
I think the following elements are the broadest, most general ones I can name, though some of them might be redundant if they are included in others: fantasy, shadow, the supernatural, beauty, imagination, dream. I suppose fantasy, imagination and dream are a kind of trinity, overlapping but with some distinction among them.
Now, I’ll try and put these terms into a biography. There are always chicken-and-egg, nature/nurture questions around early childhood, but it seems to me that if I have a nature (I don’t really believe in tabula rasa) then it was predisposed towards dreaminess. My earliest memory of a literary experience was my father reading Lord of the Rings to my brother and me. (I’m not counting things like The Hungry Caterpillar, though perhaps I should.) I think that experience was never duplicated – I was utterly transported, as if I no longer had a body and was in another world. This, to me, is really the model for literature.
I feel I have my own innate imaginative core that has nothing to do with genre, but this core was attracted to the more imaginative realms of literature. I call these, broadly, fantasy. When I was still quite young, I discovered the perverse attractions of the macabre, of sadness, of the minor key in music – these are all the things I am calling ‘shadow’. Fantasy + shadow = (any number of things including horror and Gothic literature).
As a teenager, I discovered, as many have, the quintessence, it seemed, of fantasy + shadow, in the form of H.P. Lovecraft.
But there’s another important element, which is beauty. I don’t know when I really became conscious of beauty, but there is a crossover between beauty and fantasy. Or rather, beauty is intrinsic to imagination, within which fantasy exists. I found I was able to be transported by beauty discovered – apparently – in this world, as much as (more than?) by the fantasy of another world. This is perhaps a slightly unfair statement. I think that somewhere in ‘The Journal of J.P. Drapeau’, Ligotti writes that the only value of this world is its power at certain times and under certain circumstances, to suggest the existence of another world. This is the perfect expression of something I’ve long felt. Beautiful literature, even of the least supernatural type, has something in common with fantasy literature in that the very beauty of it suggests another world.
I think with my discovery of Japanese literature, I became more interested in exploring another world through beauty rather than the more literal forms often taken in fantasy literature, not that I completely disdain those forms, and they do still hold some attraction for me. And I think that, in very basic terms, everything else has been an extrapolation of the evolution described above.
However, there’s still something about the term ‘supernatural’ that I feel I should address. I noticed it was applied to me on Wikipedia. Generally speaking – perhaps predictably – I don’t like labels, and I thought the supernatural tag was possibly misapplied when I first saw it there. However, I’ve come to think that there’s really something in it. And I don’t quite know what or why, but there is a recurrence of the supernatural in what I write. It’s not quite just ‘magic realism’ or that sort of thing. There’s an element to what I write that suggests the characters are aware of a normal reality and discover a supernatural one. Maybe that’s it – the two worlds idea. That’s why supernatural. This world and another.
And having said that, although I am clearly heavily influenced by, have one tentacle in the ‘weird’ tradition, etc., I also feel that there is some kind of element to what I do that is basically in tune with what I understand of postmodernism. I mean, I may not actually understand postmodernism at all. It wouldn’t surprise me. But there’s a continuous sense in which I see reality as competing fictions. Therefore, surrounding this ‘two worlds’ idea, I think is also a sense of radical plurality. The idea that no narrative has ultimate authority is, I believe, postmodern, but you can also find this wonderfully expressed in the writings of Chuang Tzu, and particularly the section of the Inner Chapters that is translated, in one of the books I have, as ‘The Sorting Which Evens Things Out’. In short, I do, very much, see life through the lens of story.
How does one remain committed to the recondite and the refined without becoming self-involved, elitist, or downright silly? Or should one even worry about that?
Well, of course, ‘being elitist’ is one of the big fears of our current age – it’s considered a very great sin. I think it was back in 1937 that Louis MacNeice wrote an essay with the title ‘In Defence of Vulgarity’. Now, of course, vulgarity doesn’t need any defending whatsoever, and is, on the contrary, practically obligatory. As your question suggests, it is anything that departs from populism that today we feel we must justify and defend.
We’re living in an age, to give what I think is a representative example of the current attitude, in which publishers are referred to as ‘gatekeepers’. I’m going to offer a kind of allegory here to give some idea of what I think of this attitude.
For about ten months during 2000 and 2001, I was resident in Taiwan. While I was there, I took the opportunity – and, for me, it seemed a quite tremendous opportunity – of visiting the National Palace Museum, which contains one of the most extensive and magnificent collections of Chinese art in the world. The museum has an interesting background. I believe most of what is contained there was originally in the Palace Museum in Beijing. The Japanese invasion of China prompted Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist government to move much of the content of the Palace Museum out of the way of harm. Eventually, a large amount of it ended up in Taiwan, where Chiang Kai-Shek’s government also fled when the Communists took over. Some time after the Guomindang had taken refuge in Taiwan, the Cultural Revolution swept mainland China, with much upheaval, and with the widespread destruction of a great deal of the physical culture (temples, art, etc.) thought to represent the bad old times. Anyway, the artefacts that had been moved to Taiwan were safe from this particular storm. Later, of course, authorities on mainland China accused the Guomindang of having stolen these treasures. It was countered, not unreasonably, that if the treasures hadn’t been stolen they might not have survived – that, above all, they had been protected.
Assuming that the human race lasts long enough, I can envisage a time when the current triumphalism of vulgarity finally ebbs, and people begin to feel that it would have been of greater benefit to themselves if they had not, out of vengeful spite, trampled upon what they thought of before as elitist culture. At that time, if there is any vengeful spite left in such people, they may say, “You elitists! You stole this this from us, hiding it in your limited hardback editions and your coteries!” And the answer may be given, “We didn’t steal anything. We were the only people protecting this, and if we hadn’t you would have destroyed it. You made the coteries by refusing to join them. You created the limited hardback editions by refusing to read anything other than airport novels.”
Having said this, that we have ‘elitism’ on the one hand and ‘vulgarity’ on the other suggests to me that, in the English-speaking world, at least, we are dealing with cultural polarisation. There’s a whiff of Manichaeism here. I understand the attractions of Manichaeism, the stark call to arms, for instance, as found in the work of David Lindsay or William Burroughs, but I also have a recurring sense that Manichaeism is more a creator than a solver of problems in our world. As with many things, I feel ambivalent towards it. To live in reaction to something – that, though it is tempting, is something that I would like, ultimately, to avoid. The current triumphalism of vulgarity is a reaction. I don’t want to fall into a similar reaction against it, though I feel that I must do something also not to be swept along with it.
To return to the original question, I don’t think there’s any reason to be ashamed of finding meaning precisely where we find meaning, whether that be in something generally considered elitist or generally considered vulgar. I will add that I don’t think we should be ashamed of curiosity, either. Even pretending to find meaning where we really don’t, though it may be a sin of some kind, is surely venial rather than mortal. Or perhaps it will turn out to be the greatest sin of all.
On the question of finding meaning in various places, I am reminded of a line from the (now rather old) Tori Amos song ‘Happy Phantom’. She’s describing some kind of post-mortem state and declares, “There's Judy Garland taking Buddha by the hand.” My honest feeling is that even if Tori Amos had done nothing else at all in her life, that single line would have justified her existence. I feel like that’s pretty much the blueprint for my ideal universe.
Name three books you've read recently, and say a little about them.
As of the time of writing, the last book I finished was The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky. I think I can truthfully say that this book has consumed me, in the last few weeks, like no book has done for many years. It’s not my first Dostoyevsky. In fact, there’s a sense in which Dostoyevsky was my gateway into literature. When I was fifteen or sixteen (I could probably calculate it properly if I had the time), I went to A-level college and one of my A-levels was English Language and Literature. I had always loved reading, but had generally just read unchallenging entertaining stuff (I’m simplifying things a little). Anyway, I decided it was time I challenged myself and really got to grips with Literature with a capital L. So, I went to the local bookshop, and really on the strength of the very dour cover (and, I recall, the quality of the paper and the close lines of print on the pages), I chose Crime and Punishment. I very much enjoyed it, too. Some time later I read The Idiot, which I considered one of my favourite books for a while, and also, a somewhat Dostoyevskian friend lent me Notes from Underground at some point. But all that was years ago, and it’s taken me longer than it should have to return to Dostoyevsky. For the first time in over a decade, I feel like I really want to exhaust a single writer’s oeuvre. Incidentally, I really want everyone to go to YouTube and look up the dramatisation of ‘The Dream of the Ridiculous Man’ with Jeremy Irons in it. Great performance from Mr Irons, of whom I’ve long been fond, but also, what a great, great storyteller Dostoyevsky is. He really wrote as if everything depended on it. I get the impression from that story of someone who has lived through a great deal, and is tired of hints and evasions, and really, even wearily, just wants to lay everything on the line.
Another book I finished recently was Inland, by Gerald Murnane – an Australian writer. His essay ‘The Breathing Author’ is viewable online, I think, and I would recommend reading it. I found Inland to be one of those books that is slow but worth it. Murnane has a very interesting style. He is one of these people who is obsessed with precision. What I mean by that is that we often make do with clichés when we express ourselves, and these, of course, are imprecise. In Inland, Murnane will say something, and then he’ll backtrack for pages about whether that was precisely what he meant or not, and in the meantime, he’s creating a kind of Indra’s Web of parallel universes out of the things he may or may not have meant. There were a number of moments during this book where I kind of sat back and just reflected for a while, as if struck by something.
So, this brings me to the third book I’ll mention here, which is Parmenides and the Way of Truth by Richard Geldard. This is a scholarly work, but with a hint of what I think Guardian readers refer to as ‘the Woo’. Recently, I am very interested in Parmenides, and I’ll probably be reading other books on him. The work in question is not bad, though here and there Geldard’s writing style is so poor – in a way that often happens with academics – that it’s hard to make out what he’s saying, or if he is actually saying something at all rather than just stringing words together. In The Little Prince there’s an episode where an astronomer – Turkish, I think – discovers a new star, and gives a conference on it, but his findings are laughed at because he is wearing Turkish national dress, rather than a formal suit and tie. I kind of hate academic language, because it’s the linguistic equivalent of wearing a suit and tie in order to impress your audience with the idea of your authority. This is something that I think happens to varying degrees in philosophy (it seems to me far more common in modern philosophy). At its worst, it’s really despicable. This book is not an example of the worst of that kind of thing, but it does have hints of it. There’s also that quandary that always occurs with studies of the ineffable, which might be summed up in the question, “If words are really all such bullshit then why did you write this book?” I’m torn, in such cases, between wanting to stay faithful to ineffability and so dismissing all that is written, and thinking, “Actually, this is not badly expressed, there’s something of substance here.” Torn, that is, if the work is not totally idiotic. So, this book, in my opinion, is not totally idiotic.
Incidentally, although Murnane claims not to understand the concept of philosophy, I think there is something Parmenidean about his writing, the way his alternatives branch and branch again into ‘all that there is’.
Are you a collector of anything? Books, artwork, stamps, teeth, crisp wrappers?
I don’t think I am, really, apart from books. But, if I’m not especially a collector, it has been suggested to me by someone who recently came to dinner, that I am a hoarder. I don’t think of myself that way, but it’s true that I tend to be horrified (and occasionally impressed) when people can blithely throw things away.
… Actually, on reflection, I think I’m a frustrated collector. If I think about my ideal life, it would, in fact, include a great deal of collection, but the circumstances of my life have never been conducive to maintaining collections of things. I’ve never had much money or space or secure lodgings. Therefore, rather than any virtue on my part (because I think collection is basically seen as a vice), it is merely because my spirit has been broken that I don’t now attempt to collect things. The truth is, I do like beautiful, fascinating objects, and I suppose that’s what collection is about. I’m very much drawn to ceramics and things like that.
What do you do to unwind? Is there a kind of entertainment-- books, movies, television, music, or otherwise-- or a hobby to which you turn when trying not to think?
I think I am, by nature, an enormously lazy person. At least, I have felt, almost for as long as I can remember, that whatever other people wanted me to do, it was for their good and not mine, so I am not enormously persuaded of the virtues of work. Having said that, if I think about it, I spend almost no time at all in a state of relaxation. I sometimes dream of relaxation.
In terms of how I attempt to relax, though, it’s all very simple stuff. I read. I read very slowly. I like to spend time talking with people, in person. These two things are the essentials in life, I think.
Also, I love the rain, and if there is no rain, there may be wind, and if there is no wind, if you’re very lucky, there may be silence. I hope that, before I pass from this Earth, I manage to spend some days just listening, with no aim at all in mind.
As far as films go, I enjoy them very much, the kind of glamour of it all, being ‘transported’, as it were, and being a passenger to the sensations and drama, and the incidental music, but I very seldom have time even to watch a film. As of the time of writing, the last film I watched was A Short Film About Love. That was some weeks ago. There are a considerable number of unwatched DVDs in my flat, and I have no idea when I’ll get the time to watch them.
I wouldn’t like to give the impression, however, that I don’t become fascinated by particular things, because I do. Perhaps the most recent thing to capture my imagination is this fellow called Busby Berkeley. I must have known about his work from my infant years without realising it, anyway, but it’s really just struck me what he did – he’s like M.C. Escher but with moving patterns of chorus girls. I mean, I can hardly think of anything more fantastic. Although I don’t often have time to watch whole films, I must admit to mind-snacking on YouTube clips quite a lot. It’s not unusual for me, for instance, to watch the same thirty seconds of Ginger Rogers singing backslang in the song ‘We’re in the Money’ about seven times in a row, trying to assimilate each nuance of her kooky lip and eyebrow movements, all the while enthralled by the podginess and brassiness and general glamour of the nineteen-thirties face shape. Sad, isn’t it?
How do you feel about the current state of the world? Politically, economically, culturally or otherwise?
I’m not a very worldly person, but I do occasionally notice the world. Al Gore, undoubtedly more informed than an obscure and introverted author of frivolous fictions, has written 592 pages in anticipation of ‘The Future’, apparently, and though I haven’t read it, I would guess it’s far more illuminating than anything I have to say about the state of the world.
Having said that, I do have my own version of ‘The Future’, which won’t take you as long to read, and which I sent in an e-mail to someone recently, as follows, presenting a list of 21st century (and beyond) possibilities. I quote:
“And then, what lies ahead? None of the apparent choices are attractive to me:
a) Transhumanism, whereby tomorrow’s equivalent of Google, Microsoft, etc., basically have the monopoly on god-making technologies of longevity, virtual reality and so on.
b) Ecological Armageddon, which kind of speaks for itself.
c) An indefinite spread of mall culture, with science somehow managing to clear up after each disaster and patch things up into cosiness and muzak banality ‘forever and ever’.
d) Egoless utopia – a singularity of consciousness. Perhaps the most attractive of these options, it nonetheless could easily play out like a more smiley-faced version of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers.
e) Hit by an asteroid, etc.
f) Cthulhu wakes.
g) The rapture.
h) The long ascent and descent into obscurity, never at any point coming close to a reason for it all.
On a more hopeful – in a sense – note, I do wonder about the kind of ‘White Man’s burden’ that it seems many of us increasingly feel towards the world in general. James Cameron (not the Canadian film director, but the British journalist and CND campaigner) once wrote, I believe, in reference to the US forces in the Korean War, something like: “What to think of a people who blow your legs off and then earnestly and helpfully go to the trouble of fitting you with shiny new artificial limbs?”
We could apply this to the human race in a larger sense, in our treatment of other people, of other species, and so on. It seems as if we – perhaps not all humans, but certainly the interventionist type – are in some way compelled to bring things to a terrible pass just so we can then heroically attempt rescue. If we go on being successful in this strategy, presumably it will culminate in us endangering the entire universe and then saving it from the danger we ourselves have created. And this seems to be the very strange thing that the knowledge of Good and Evil does to us.
Occasionally, though, I really do get the sense that things are just not up to us, and we should therefore relax a bit. The other day, walking along Catford Road as the rays of the sinking sun caught the rush hour traffic, I suddenly had this feeling: none of this really depends on me. In the same way that the universe doesn’t need us to explain it, but we feel compelled to try and do so anyway, I don’t think (whatever our compulsions), the world needs us to save it.
Then again, it’s certainly true that humans continue to engage in those endangering behaviours, and one way or another we’ll face the consequences.
Having got that out of the way, there is one observation I would personally like to make about what is happening in the world now, and this is to do with a growing impression that people are increasingly becoming petty puritans. And I very much dislike this.
I feel a general distaste for the battle between left and right, but I feel I can observe this much: If the right are becoming increasingly paranoid, then the left are becoming increasingly dogmatic and intolerant. It seems to me that I dislike left and right most where they have most in common, which is, one way or another, that the more people identify with either left or right, the less they can tolerate actual free speech or actual free thought. And perhaps since my peers are generally on the left, I feel this vile tendency more in the left than the right. It also comes out with excessive concerns about safety and hygiene, of course, and with the confusion of sexual hang-ups with morality – of any kind of hang-ups with morality.
On the 1st of March, I attended a Momus gig with some friends, in Dalston, London (incidentally, a blindingly good gig). On the train back, slightly the worse for alcohol, I’m afraid I must have bent the ear of Joe Campbell (who recorded the interview I did with John Elliott), because conspicuously left-leaning as he is, Momus has not succumbed to the creeping ghastliness of political correctness, and this is not only evident, but even explicit in his songs, and this prompted a long lament on my part about what the world’s coming to. There was one example, in particular, from that evening, which expressed my feelings on the subject precisely – a song by the title of ‘The Cabinet of Kuniyoshi Kaneko’. Again, I quote:
“In life remain considerate, in art the Devil's advocate
Why deny that Pegasus has wings
In life remain considerate, in art the Devil incarnate
Why deny the siren when it sings?
In games there must be no forbidden things”
It seems as if people, even supposed artists, have mostly forgotten this way of being and expressing yourself today.
Anyway, a day or so after my drunken peroration on this subject, I came across a review of Bowie’s The Next Day, by Michael Hogan, in which he quoted Yeats’s ‘Politics’ and described it as being “as alarming as it is amusing”. Why? Because “Yeats was in his early 70s when he wrote this, and it's gross to imagine him leering at some unsuspecting young woman.” Is it gross? (A word, incidentally, that I despise.) The whole hypocrisy of this is visible in the clause “gross to imagine him”; in other words it’s Hogan’s imagination, rather than the reality, that is gross, but Hogan is blaming Yeats for this. And why the word “unsuspecting”, which makes the woman into an automatic victim? Why “leering”? This is pure ‘what will my neighbours think?’ writing on the part of Hogan, and this is the kind of priggishness we’re being subjected to more and more. I mean, Michael Hogan’s review is not even the best example of this (he is actually praising Yeats’s poem in the end, etc) – it only struck me because it followed so closely on the heels of my harangue on the subject. Hogan’s conformism here is of a fairly mild and fairly non-toxic kind – but I do believe that this same tendency is becoming very toxic right now.
In an essay called ‘The Prevention of Literature’, published in 1946, George Orwell wrote that “it is the peculiarity of our age that the rebels against the existing order, at any rate the most numerous and characteristic of them, are also rebelling against the idea of individual integrity”. Orwell also observed what I’m talking about, so clearly it’s not a new tendency, but it seems to me to be getting stronger. As Orwell goes on to say, referencing the hymn ‘Dare to be a Daniel’, “‘Daring to stand alone’ is ideologically criminal as well as practically dangerous.” But I am heartily sick of those who huddle together under their ideology, finding safety in numbers, and bolstering their own position with witch hunts and accusations of one kind and another. What most of this amounts to is the craven attitude, “It wasn’t me, it was him!”
Your new collection, Defeated Dogs, is out from Eibonvale Press soon. The stories in it are uncollected but not necessarily unpublished. What, if anything, guided your selection of the contents? Do you think the stories have a unifying sensibility, beyond that which all your work will naturally possess? How do you think Defeated Dogs compares to previous collections? Does its retrospective quality inspire any meditations on your development as a writer?
Well, I basically sent David Rix everything I thought was presentable that didn’t belong, in my mind, to some future collection. He made a selection from this. There was one story he suggested I re-write. Taking a closer look at it, I decided it needed pretty radical re-writing, and, sadly, in the event, I haven’t had time, so that one was dropped. A couple of others also didn’t make the cut. So, the final contents have been arrived at, as it were, by a simple process of elimination. Having said that, I do feel like this collection has an identity. To me it feels like a b-sides album. (Incidentally, I love b-sides, which, often enough, and depending on the artist, are more interesting than a-sides.) I suppose I would say that as a collection it is somewhat (though not entirely) subdued. Although it is not a chronological sequel to All God’s Angels, Beware! in a sense, nonetheless, I see it as a kind of sequel. All God’s Angels has a defiant quality to it; Defeated Dogs is, I feel, overall, somewhat more fatalistic, as the title suggests. I’d like to mention that the previously unpublished Lilo is the oldest piece in the book, dated from some time in the nineties. In fact, it must have been written in 1998, I’d guess, as I remember that both The Matrix and eXistenZ came out the next year, and I was really pissed off that now, any time I published this, it would probably be considered a copy of the former. Of those two films, by the way, I much prefer the latter. Re-reading Lilo now, I don’t think it comes across as a copy of either – thankfully – despite the huge overlap in themes. At the time of writing, it’s also one of my own pieces of which I’m fonder. There was one part that really needed rewriting, and I did that. Also, some of the language is overdone, but I left that, as I didn’t want to tamper too much with the feel of the thing. On the whole I was struck by the fact that even when I wrote the story – I am often struck by this – I knew what was wrong with it, but I just didn’t know at the time how to fix it.
Regarding my development as a writer, proofreading these stories does give me some ideas about this. I think, generally speaking, I have been improving over the years. It’s been a painstaking process. I do actually think I started, in some sense, badly, and that I am a slow developer.
In his review of Aleister Crowley’s The Drug and Other Stories, in the journal Wormwood, Reggie Oliver mentions a fact I haven’t heard of elsewhere, that, apparently, “The critic and novelist C.S. Lewis once described the brief period when he became insane as the most boring of his life.” This is quite a suggestive idea, and I think I understand it. Sometimes, reading over my old work, I feel as if I am reading a diary written during a period of mental illness. There’s a flatness which is paradoxically also disturbing and quite intolerably embarrassing. How, I wonder, did my passions and my ideas and so on, spike into such repugnant forms, so grotesquely meaningless? There’s something about it of the mania of the narrator of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ – this terrible detachment, and the detachment itself becoming an itch, a terrible, disturbing itch, and then, everything seeming terribly wrong and upside-down and unendurable. This is the feeling I get, sometimes, as I say, re-reading an old story of mine.
There’s a struggle here, that for me is the very heart of writing, and may well be the heart of my whole life. I started off childishly in my writing, but to write well the socialising superego must have a hand – the critic who tells you this is a cliché, that is bad characterisation, something else is unrealistic, and so on and so forth, because he doesn’t want you to be laughed at and hurt and trampled. He is ‘cruel to be kind’. But, in order to protect you, the superego hides you away, like a hideous child. This is the dilemma – to write well, you must listen to your superego/critic who wishes to protect you. But to write truthfully (which is the ultimate way of writing well), you must let your hideous child out of the room in which, for his own good, he has been locked up.
This is the struggle I am constantly engaged in while trying to ‘develop my writing’. And the truth is, I think my own hideous child is particularly hideous and particularly childish. Sometimes when I re-read things I’ve written, well, I can’t really describe it. I feel myself shrivelling up like a threatened spider. There is a real question as to whether I should continue. But then again, I do feel as if writing is my life, so to continue living is probably to continue writing. If we see our personalities as four dimensional, by which I mean, one aspect of personality is the shape it makes in time, then, as reflected in my writing, one aspect of my own personality is a staggered slowness and lateness of development. This might sound like I’m repeating myself, but what I mean is: I believe (hope) that I do have something to contribute to the world of fiction, literature, or whatever you wish to call it, but part of the very character of what I have to contribute is this late-developingness of its shape. This has been very painful for me, as perhaps can be imagined, but I carry on partly from lack of choice, and partly from belief in this late-development-shaped unique something.
You've indicated, in preliminary discussions about this interview, a dissatisfaction with the current state of your writing, and a possibly related desire to make a change, in a variety of senses. Is there anything you'd like to say about that?
Yes. I think that I should, though I’m not sure how coherent I will be. It is partly because I am sensing an accumulation of incoherent – or at least inchoate – new things in me that I am trying to make changes at present.
Maybe I can start by saying that the world itself seems poised on the brink of change to a degree that is arguably unprecedented in terms of human history. My own part in all this is infinitesimally small, but for me, of course, is everything (more or less everything, depending on how Jungian one wants to get). So, some of the small things that loom large for me are necessarily to do with books and writing.
Recently, I announced (on my blog) that I was ending my blog, basically because of disillusionment with the Internet. I suppose it could easily come across that I’ve made up my mind what’s what concerning the internet, new technology and so on, but that’s not true. What I have made up my mind about is that I don’t want to remain unquestioning and increasingly exhausted on the treadmill of so-called progress. I don’t want to live by default, which the current marriage of capitalism and technology seems to encourage us to do.
If I don’t want to remain unquestioning, naturally that means I want to question. One of the things most necessary for me to question is the value of my own writing. Does it have value? Is it relevant? Is it merely some kind of vice that distracts me and possibly others from the truth? In the world out there, so to speak, I get the impression that books (real books that is, by which I mean both in a physical sense and a literary sense) are seen more and more as archaic. This may indicate that they really are becoming obsolete (as in, no longer relevant to human needs), or, it may simply indicate to me that the human race is tending in a direction that I must consciously deviate from. Either way, there are implications for me in how I face the future.
A relatively brief way of expressing this might be that I have come to one of those periods that visit sometimes in the life of a writer (more often with some writers than others) when all one’s doubts and suspicions that what one has been engaging in is “vanity of vanities” gather together and swell into a kind of crescendo. Yes, you ‘always knew it was vanity, but…’ It is precisely at the time when the hollowness of it all becomes unignorable, that you begin to think more urgently about the purpose it might have. I suppose the purpose must be either to live, or to find some alternative to life, but then the question is how to do this most effectively and fully.
I was wondering how to bring this answer to a conclusion that wouldn’t be entirely vague, and a juxtaposition of things has helped me slightly. I was re-reading an article in Spike Magazine about Houellebecq and Gnosticism, and I had Sufjan Stevens playing in the background. I was reading the bit about Dostoyevsky and the Gospel of Philip when Mr Stevens sang, “Still I go to the deepest grave/Where I go to sleep alone.”
On the entry for the 8th of March, on his Tumblr feed, Momus reproduces his article about comebacks. He argues there against comebacks – that one should simply never go away. It’s an interesting read, but, for myself, I think ‘going away’, or “hiding in a mountain”, as Momus calls it, is essential. Partly, this is probably, anyway, something that is different between making music or films, and writing books. Books are generally written in solitude and read in solitude – a message in a bottle from one solitude to another.
I also think, however, there is a general value in the whole “hiding in a mountain” thing, and a value that is even perhaps more important now than it has been for some time. You might also call “hiding in a mountain”, “going offline”. The internet, among many things, is a kind of consensus machine – you can see this, for instance, in the feature of the ‘like’ button on Facebook. This aspect of the internet is like a non-stop talent show, the kind with a ‘clap-o-meter’, where the applause is measured second by second, and if your tap-dancing lets up in entertainment value for a moment, you are, as they say ‘nowhere’. There’s a kind of closed circuit that is created by this – a feedback loop, I think it might be called. And I don’t think that’s conducive to originality, to innovation, to deep reflection, to genuine morality. Recently, when I think of the internet, various ominous analogies come to mind. One of them is the feast that Vlad Tepes laid on for the poor and sick in Targoviste. They were ushered into a great banquet hall, and the doors were bolted behind them, and then the hall was set on fire. I suspect that we are being encouraged to invest everything – our hopes, our way of life, our souls, if we still believe in them – in technologies that will ultimately be disastrous. At the very least, I want to keep a little back. And to that end, and other ends, I intend to spend some time hiding in the abovementioned mountain.
Are you writing now? If so, what have you been working on? If not, what was the last thing you wrote?
I am, though it’s going much slower than I would like. After Defeated Dogs, there should be something else coming out (fingers crossed), about which I am not yet at liberty to say anything. I’ve been typing up and revising a final story for this. The story in question, which I hope makes the cut, is novella-length, and is called Blue on Blue, after the Bobby Vinton song. I hope after that finally to revise The Hideous Child, a novel whose first draft I finished early in 2011, and to submit it formally for publication somewhere, but I don’t know how long that will take. There are, in fact, numerous bits and pieces I’ve been taking up and putting down again. Recently, I started a new notebook for a new idea, which I hope will come to something. The original title was Winter, and then Winter Carousels, but now I’ve changed the title again, but I don’t want to reveal it yet. If I ever finish it, it will be a massive and huge science fiction novel set largely in London.
I’d also like to mention the fact that I am busily involved in a collaborative project, under the aegis of Daniel Corrick’s Hieroglyphic Press, through a special imprint called Snuggly Books. Justin Isis, Brendan Connell and myself are finishing a novel begun some years back under the title of The Cutest Girl in Class. This will be a limited edition, all going well, available for pre-order before long, with the goal of financing my trip to Japan to meet Justin Isis for the first time (after seven years or more of knowing each other, we still haven’t actually met). The book has to be limited edition, because that’s the only way of actually raising any money in the small press. The online publicity material describes the project thus: “Fraught with double crosses and missing mannequins, this is Waiting for Godot meets Beach Blanket Bingo.” I’m feeling startlingly good about this project, and can’t wait for the book to be officially released into the wild.
And, on the subject of Hieroglyphic Press, I’d like to take this chance to make it known that I have a piece in Sacrum Regnum II. It’s not fiction, as such, and it’s unlikely to appear in any collection of mine in any kind of foreseeable future.
And, on the subject of Hieroglyphic Press, I’d like to take this chance to make it known that I have a piece in Sacrum Regnum II. It’s not fiction, as such, and it’s unlikely to appear in any collection of mine in any kind of foreseeable future.
After a few years and nearly two dozen books, how do you feel about the state of Chômu Press? Has it achieved what you hoped it would? What, in both concrete and abstract senses, does the future hold for Chômu?
Life is uncertain at the best of times, and I think the ecological niche of the literary small press has always been especially precarious. For that reason, I can truthfully say, I have very little idea what the future holds. In David Copperfield, after the hero has returned from his travels in Europe, he goes for a meal at Gray’s Inn, to meet his old friend Traddles who “works in the law” or something. He finds the waiters of the inn peculiarly unimpressed regarding just about everything and concludes, “…both England, and the law, appeared to me to be very difficult indeed to be taken by storm”. Sometimes it seems like, if you work in a populist medium like… well, pop music, or some areas of the art world, all you have to do is wear a dress made of frogs or something and “the world freely offers itself to you to be unmasked”. But I think writers and publishers are far more familiar with the experience known to David Copperfield of the unimpressed waiters. All this is just my way of saying, it’s really much harder than you might imagine – and I won’t go into details on that score.
Those who have supported us, however, have been very supportive indeed, which is very gratifying. What’s more, if I put on my ‘half-full glasses’, although there is certainly much more it would be great if we could do, I am proud to be associated with all the titles that we’ve put out. Some of our authors who I also know to a degree as people, and who are probably not as well known to the readers who are primarily familiar with the scene in which I’ve had my own work published, I view as neglected national treasures, and living repositories of the flaming lore of literature, etc. That may be a convoluted way of saying something quite personal that won’t be widely understood. Let me put it more simply: there is a flame that gets passed on. Some of this is more widely known, and some of it less. The flame I’ve had the privilege to act as custodian for with Chomu is generally less well known, but it’s burning, and, in my estimation, more brightly than flames around which larger numbers of people are gathered. I am glad to be a part of that.
At present, we don’t have a lot actually scheduled, but after P.F. Jeffery’s eccentric and beguiling Jane, the next thing we put out should be a new novel from Michael Cisco. We have other plans, too, which we haven’t put on the schedule yet. Things remain fairly open, but what I mainly hope is that we’ll be able to go on showing that the really interesting stuff in contemporary literature is not happening where people thought it was happening. In other words, I hope we continue to celebrate diversity and off-centredness.
Given my appreciation for your novella "Ynys-y-Plag," I can't resist asking what you recall about that story's genesis and development.
Some of this is lost now – perhaps sadly. I can say with some certainty that the story would not have happened if a reader of my blog had not re-directed my attention to Algernon Blackwood – to ‘The Wendigo’, I believe. I remember reading this and thinking, “I really should have another crack at the old weird fiction thing”, or something to that effect.
I can’t remember now the initial germs of the story, except that it was to do with the landscape where I was living at the time (in Wales) and also a general sense of creepiness, by which I mean the wanting-but-not-daring-to-look-over-your-shoulder feeling that is lacking in much modern horror, where the emphasis has now long been on simple gore, torture and so on. I am interested in creepiness, and I do think this is distinct from visceral horror or the horror of the daily news. I have experienced ‘the Hag’ a couple of times in my life, and it seems to me, to put this in slightly materialistic terms, that whatever part of the brain produces the Hag (presumably a very ancient part), it’s also what lies behind all the most compelling and mysterious horror tales. I think this is why Lovecraft (rightly) stresses that a ‘Weird’ tale should be judged purely on the pitch of otherworldly terror and strangeness it reaches at its least mundane point, because this kind of creepiness is a distinct effect that is hard to mix with and to judge alongside other effects and aims (although I do like to mix up different elements).
Anyway, early on, as I was contemplating this story, I was getting quite powerful creeps and shivers. It was all about fleeting shadows, shapes at windows, suggestion, that kind of thing, but it was strong and distinct. There was something particular in the midst of all this shadow for me to work with. And the strength of the feeling was a good sign to me – that’s what I wanted to get on paper. Precisely that. My estimate is that, somehow, I only managed to get, say, one third of that feeling into the story itself, but even so, that’s pretty good going.
I’ve just dug up my initial written notes for the story. There may be more somewhere, but what I’ve found is one page of notes. (It varies, but usually, for a story the size of ‘Ynys-y-Plag’, I’d write at least ten pages of notes.)
So, I won’t copy out the whole page, but it begins (some may consider these notes as spoilers): “A kind of imp or sprite. Spiky face. Something appears to be hanging on the end of the rope. Lost things. Weedy manhole cover. One night I heard a terrible caterwauling, like that of children, seem to echo from the manhole. My own voice as a child. I heard it. Lonely places. Nature overgrows things. Gates. Bridges. Places to piss. The smell of piss.”
What these notes remind me of is this interesting (to me, at least) fact: The original idea for the story split into two. The caterwauling ended up in the story ‘The Were-Sheep of Abercrave’. ‘Ynys-y-Plag’ and ‘Were-sheep’ are basically monozygotic twins, though, as with the brothers in ‘The Dunwich Horror’, ‘Ynys-y-Plag’ “looks more like the father”.
Now, the page of notes I have before me is divided into two halves – one in black and one in blue ink, obviously written on different occasions. The second half, in blue ink, mainly concerns the character Buddug (who, in the notes, is referred to as ‘Ruth’). Incidentally, Buddug is a Welsh name pronounced ‘bee-thig’, with a ‘th’ as in ‘them’. My main objective was really just to make my own attempt at getting that creepy Hag feeling on the page that is the essence of good ‘Weird’ fiction. It was a totally traditional thing (I think) that I was attempting. In your review of the story you have mentioned, I believe, its modern psychology. This is not something I consciously set out to achieve, but if it has something of the sort, and if, in doing so, it contributes something original to this area of supernatural fiction then I’m very glad.
I’d also add that, I think I know what aspects you are referring to, and for me these are largely (though not entirely) facilitated by the Buddug character. I knew that the creepy entity – the monster – in the story had to have a secret, and Buddug knows the secret. I didn’t want to cop out by not telling what the secret was, and I also did not want to cop out with something stupid like ‘it’s allergic to [insert arbitrary substance or symbol]’. I wanted the secret to be real in some way. So, I lay down and let myself go deeply into the story and after a while, all of a sudden, I knew what the secret was. And that is the last thing that is written on this page of notes, and also, of course, the last thing in the story.
Is there anything else you'd like to say?
Well, there is something I’d like to say, for my benefit rather than anyone else’s (which I suppose is true of this whole interview). I had the feeling recently that I want to stop doing online text interviews, but I felt I still had a little something to say, so I’ve made a kind of pact with myself that this will be the last online text interview I do this decade except in the case that I’m only talking about Chômu Press. This may seem ridiculously specific, but, apart from anything else, specific resolutions are easier to keep. Also, if I state it publicly, as here, then I am more likely to hold myself to it.
I can only hope that, if Quentin's resolution to abandon online text-based interviews holds, this has made for a worthwhile "last interview." Readers who want to explore his writing can buy the Chômu Press editions of "Remember You're A One-Ball!" and All God's Angels Beware from Amazon.com, and Morbid Tales is available in paperback and e-book from Tartarus Press. Defeated Dogs, which is currently at the printer and should be released very shortly, can be ordered from Eibonvale Press.