Sunday, October 11, 2020
☆Quentin S. Crisp v. Justin Isis: Rise of Dadaoism, Part III - An Interview with Quentin S. Crisp, or: Quentin S. Crisp As He Is Written and Spoken (Principally an Interview with Quentin S. Crisp)☆
Earlier interviews with Quentin available here and here.
JUSTIN ISIS: The last time we had a conversation of this kind was ten years ago. That already seems like a different world, and we were both at very different stages of our lives and careers. There’s an energy to that interview that seems a bit deflated by the past decade of more or less constant worldwide social and political disasters, not to mention the ongoing ossification of the Internet and its once-revolutionary potential for social and artistic change. With that said, are there any threads from that interview that still resonate with you, or has your perspective changed completely? I know that in the past few years you’ve delved seriously into philosophy, studying it at university and pursuing a teaching career. This development doesn't seem inevitable, which makes it interesting. Metaphysical concerns were always present in your writing, but recently you’ve been engaged with very technical philosophy and logic. How has this changed your overall outlook?
QUENTIN S. CRISP: I've just read over the old conversation/interview. Yes, those were very different times. I think at that time I was still very much in thrall to some notion of postmodern playfulness. I also notice some false notes in my humour. Not all of it rings false. I mean, looking back it seems a bit manic, which is not to everyone's taste, but is not inherently a bad thing. But I think I was just a bit more susceptible to the kind of off-the-rack turn of phrase that signals a willingness (excessive, I think) to be available for informal and up-to-date banter. These days I find such humorous verbal memes a bit tiresome. Just to be clear about what I'm referring to, there are phrases like "a bonus tip" and "geddit" that I would not use now and probably only used somewhat experimentally at the time. They make me cringe. I think they are symptomatic of my tone at that time, though the tone is not entirely corrupted by this pathology. I don't know if I've just become more sensitive to this or whether the phenomenon of humorous verbal memes has exploded since then, but every time I see someone use something like "checks notes" online these days, well, let me be restrained and say that I heave a deep sigh. Anyway, to reiterate, I'm not saying all the humour in that interview is bad. I did literally lol, for instance, at question number four about vampires and Ayn Rand, though that's you and not me, of course.
As to what still resonates, there's mention in the first answer of the problem of the sign and the signified and this still preoccupies me greatly. It's something that is at the heart of St Anselm's Ontological Argument, which I've been spending a lot of time with in recent years. Other things I notice: there's some gentle ribbing of Hayden Panettiere's 'virtue signalling', though I would not have known that phrase then and think it probably had not been concocted yet. This actually makes me think of those days with some fondness. One could still mock something without being immediately identified as a deadly enemy and online interaction was not limited to the exchange of death threats. I still keep meaning to take up Tai Chi, as mentioned in that earlier interview. But the most resonant section is my answer to the question of what sets my writing apart. Pretty much all that I say there remains at the forefront of my experience of what it is to be a writer. Just to recap briefly, that is: the dilemma of how to render one's inner world in fiction when fiction demands the ability to recreate some structure that is persuasively like the outer world. I might come back to this. There's a deep conflict here that could be characterised as the clash between the mimetic and the Platonic in art.
I suppose I can use that to segue into the question about philosophy. Just to be clear, I'm not so much pursuing teaching at the moment, as contemplating it as a future possibility, but I have just finished (a year ago) an MA in philosophy and am hoping to take my studies further. There are a number of different tributaries that have converged to make this particular stream in my life and I don't think I can cover them all here. Although it wasn't always on the cards, it's also not without auguries in my life. For instance, when I was doing A-levels, one of them, after I'd reshuffled my options a bit, was Religious Studies. I took this as - at the time - a cocky young atheist. I thought I was dashingly original to be an atheist studying religion. The course was divided into the philosophy of religion and Bible studies. One of the things that sticks in my mind from that course, which was my first formal encounter with philosophy, was the Ontological Argument. I never told anyone at the time, but it immediately convinced me. Reading it constituted a small-scale mystical experience. I suppressed this, of course, and the effect faded. Decades later, the Ontological Argument was the subject of my dissertation.
There are other tributaries. Antinatalism has been one of them. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is not the kind of thing that would appear in a philosophy lecture room, but if anyone cares to read the section of The Paris Notebooks that deals with my first reading of that text, they will see some of the reaction that was so influential in leading me eventually to my current position, which, to be entirely unambiguous for once, is philosophical theism.
I must give credit here to Daniel Corrick who put me on the right road in my reading. I had long had a haphazard interest in philosophy, particularly in relation to Parmenides and the question of Being, but, in a timely intervention, Mr Corrick suggested I take a more systematic approach and placed Edward Feser's Philosophy of Mind into my hands. A lot of things clicked into place right then. Until then I hadn't even realised there was a road to be put onto.
Among other things, I more or less completely relinquished my former anti-rationality and saw my long-standing subjectivism as a morass from which it might be possible to escape. I should add, mind you, that perhaps the better part of the problem had been the kind of people who claim rationality as their own. They had put me off it. In general, these people are not really rational at all. They are naturalists, or something of the kind. Funnily enough, I saw Stephen Fry trying to correct this widespread misconception when he said he was not a rationalist but an empiricist. Most of the people claiming to be rationalists are, in terms of general ethos, in the Stephen Fry camp. I'm not. It is precisely rationality that has made me a theist. I'm simplifying a lot here, but that's inevitable. Broadly speaking, I've come to a Platonist position, though I also feel myself in tension with certain aspects of Platonism. However, in terms of how my overall outlook has changed, I can't help seeing 'doxa' everywhere now - doxa and sophistry. The so-called post-factual society (notice that there are two political sides who each strategically hurl the insult of being 'post-factual' at the other) seems very much what Plato was warning us against in his attack on the Sophists. This fact alone would make him worth studying, apart from anything else.
Plato's criticism of poets and artists was another thing that motivated me in studying philosophy. At first I was outraged by his theoretical banishing of poets from the Republic. Well, actually, it was more the short dialogue 'Ion' that I was responding to. I think it was when I read some of Apology, though (I need to check this), that I actually came to accept his criticisms. They hit home partly because it was becoming more and more apparent that the kind of people who tend to get referred to as artists these days very seldom know anything about anything. I also had to put up my own hand and plead guilty. So, I thought, alright, I'll take up the challenge. I'll see if I can put my art on a more rational footing.
JI: At the time of that last interview, your most recent release was the novella Shrike (which, incidentally, has just been rereleased by Zagava Books). You were mostly known for horror or ‘weird fiction’ stories in collections like Morbid Tales and Rule Dementia!, although the latter work had already begun straining past the bounds of genre conventions, a trend which continued in the landmark All God's Angels, Beware! collection. Apart from your earliest stories, your work has never sat comfortably within the horror/‘weird fiction’ categories, and they seem even less relevant to where you’re at now. I do feel that this early categorization has hurt your reception somewhat, as it tends to lead to comparisons with far more conventional and predictable writers who happily inhabit the categories and are content to churn out more or less indistinguishable volumes year after year. It’s worth noting, though, that the cover description of All God’s Angels mentioned ‘Literary Romanticism.’ Given the rise of Neo-Decadence, do you see this as a better fit for your writing, or do you consider it outside these considerations altogether? I’m thinking here of sui generis stories like “Karakasa,” which resembles Neo-Decadent science fiction, and some of the more abstract works from the Defeated Dogs collection, such as “Sado-ga-shima” and “The Gay Wolf.”
QSC: Well, in terms of labels, frankly, there are only a handful that I have ever identified with as a complete person. These are: English, writer, romantic and now theist. That's not to say I think myself typical of any of these labels, but I don't feel the need to reject them. I think 'romantic' might be a bit iffy in terms of its applicability now, but, then again, I found myself very sympathetic to the writings of Schlegel recently. I think I've always had a pantheistic streak, which, combined with the idea of the importance of the individual, perhaps characterises the greater part of my overlap with romanticism. But this is me as a person.
In terms of my writing, I think there is good reason for the 'weird' label. When I write macabre, 'weird' stuff, I am not doing it as a tourist in the genre. But then, I'm not sure that I am doing it because of the genre at all. I'm interested in death, darkness, madness, the supernatural, decay, obsession, etc., in strange atmospheres, haunted places, and so on, so it's not surprising that I would often write within the genre. It's also true that my fundamental understanding of literature has always been of something that exercises the imagination to take it out of the confines of daily life. But it is almost an accident that the first stuff I've had published fitted so comfortably within the weird genre. I'd already been writing for years before then, and tended to jump between SF, fantasy and the macabre. One piece that I started writing, but never finished, was something like anime cyber-punk written in a William Burroughs style. This was all before The Nightmare Exhibition, my first collection, was published or even written.
I have to be honest here - I've never had a very clear idea of what the term 'decadence' covers, that is, where its border might lie. If I take the term at face value, it's obviously referring to the decline of civilisation, and the artistic embrace of that, I suppose. In that sense I am certainly decadent, since I think I'm very much a product of the decline of Western civilisation, but I don't think that's a good thing. I don't know, if you're born on a rubbish heap, I suppose you adapt to fit in, try to build with the materials around you and so on. But I suppose as an artistic category, the meaning is probably more specific than this. Then there's the complication of 'Neo-decadence'. Is this the decay of decay?
Maybe I can be a little playful here. Although I do see a collapsing society when I look around, and I don't think that's a good thing, maybe it's as natural as a rotting log in a forest, and a rotting log is pretty fascinating, and fungus is quite beautiful and so on. What's more, the decay of the log is needed for the overall fertility of the woods. So, if 'Neo-decadence' means something like 'looking for the fertility in decay' then I think it very much applies to my writing. But, as a situated person, I find myself largely quite depressed about social decay. I'm not sure why I need to make that qualification, but it seems significant at the moment.
In the end, I think people can call me what they want, as long as I'm not expected to live up - or down - to it.
JI: Over the past decade your publications have tended increasingly towards memoir, with essayistic and diary-based works like The Boy Who Played with Shadows, The Paris Notebooks, Aiaigasa and The Flowering Hedgerow occupying the same space as the Japanese “I-novel,” without ever attempting anything like a ‘straight’ chronological autobiography. But I want to suggest that each of these books (and any forthcoming ones) could function as chapters in a single giant book that could form a working autobiography. Perhaps your month-based poetic works, which resemble Philip Larkin poems compressed by the tanka form, could act as alternating chapters or an appendix of some kind too. Given that your fiction has always included long digressive and exploratory passages, was it always your intention to head in this direction? Although the aforementioned works vary greatly in terms of when they were written, they do all seem to share a similar focus on fleeting/transient perceptions and observations of mundane reality. Often very little or even next to nothing ‘happens’ in them in the sense that we’ve come to expect from mainstream memoirs, and the relationships they depict aren't clarified in a way that most readers would expect, but there are numerous recurring themes and piercing moments of insight that would be difficult to achieve in any other format. Thus far these works have received comparatively little critical attention, and I can imagine them being somewhat frustrating for people who grew accustomed to your fiction. I’ve struggled a bit with them myself at times, but I suspect this is because the final design isn’t yet clear, and that it’s still too soon to say what they’ll look like in relation to future works. Do you see them as being in dialogue with your fiction, or something else entirely? Are they, and upcoming works of their kind, meant to amount to a super-autobiography? And do you see yourself continuing in this direction, or focusing more on stories and novels?
QSC: To answer the easiest of these questions first, the memoir- or diary-style works are very much in dialogue with my fiction, yes. All of it is, in a sense, one big work, though I hope there's a lot of variation in form, tone, texture and so on. I don't really think of any of it as autobiographical, though, except in a secondary sense. I'll write more about that below.
It wasn't always the plan to have these two sides to my writing. I think it's something that has emerged naturally from my terrible insecurities about realism. I've always been haunted by the feeling that I am not a real person, so I am never sure that I've written something that will feel real to a reader. My earliest instincts about writing were always to create a magical fantasy world for other people to enter, but I became very worried about the reality of these worlds. So, here we come back to the question of the sign and the signified. Were my words signifying anything? I became so obsessed with this question that the need emerged for me to write things where I could be slightly more confident that they do signify something. The reason I've begun to write about my own 'real life' is primarily, I would say, to try and work out this relationship with the sign and the signified. I never set out to write an autobiography. I thought that would be pointless and boring. But then, as I started writing about my life - things that at least had my memory as a witness that there was something signified - I faced another problem: how to make my life interesting. That was another very difficult challenge. And it's an ongoing challenge. So, there are a couple of questions here: can I find in my real life the things that I originally wanted to evoke in a fantasy world? (We can perhaps have a variant of this question: can I build a bridge between my life and the fantasy world?) And another question is, should I, instead, sever bonds with the fantasy world by finding all my meaning in my daily life instead?
So, yeah, the fiction and the other stuff (the I-novel stuff, let's say) are very much in dialogue with each other.
I like the characterisation of the month-based poems as Larkin compressed into tanka. If they live up to that description then I shall be very pleased. I can talk about another conscious motivation in relation to these. Temporal setting has become very difficult for contemporary fiction. If you set something in the present and there are meant to be topical elements, then those elements will probably be outdated by the time the book is published, especially if you're an obscure writer whose books are not at the front of the queue for the attention of publishers and readers. Things are just moving too quickly now. So, these poems, which are all tied specifically to the day on which the were written, at least in terms of expressing what was on my mind that day, are partly an attempt to deal with the current speed of life. You could, rather fancifully, call them a kind of bat sonar for the passing times, made with the intention of helping me to get an idea of the wider temporal landscape I'm passing through to help ground my fiction.
There's yet another motivation here. I'm worried about the rise of AI (which, incidentally, having studied some philosophy of mind, I now think is largely a con, though still worrying for all that). The prospect, now becoming a reality, of fiction and poetry written by AI raises the question of what literature actually is - what makes it meaningful? An AI could duplicate, by chance, the words of my poems, but it would not have the same relation to the things signified. You could say that writing about personal thoughts and events that are date-stamped surrounds them with a kind of anti-AI copyright force field. The AI was not thinking those things on the date in question. The AI was not involved in the events alluded to. And so on.
In terms of my future direction, I don't think there's going to be a tendency of increased 'I-novel' material and decreased fiction. Most of my ideas are for fiction. I literally have hundreds of ideas for stories jotted down in notebooks. Recently, doing the mortality maths, I worked out that I would only be able to turn a small fraction of these ideas into stories and I made a list of the ones I think are most important. This list currently stands at 23 titles. A couple of them are philosophical essay ideas, but the rest are fiction. In other words, I haven't yet prioritised any 'I-novel' material. This is partly because I think that material will just happen, anyway, but it's partly because it's more experimental in form, anyway, so it's not the kind of thing I would plan so much in the first place. Also, in relation to this list, I've thought about what I would do if I was suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer. One of those titles might suddenly leap out at me and demand to be written, but it seems more likely I'd just think, "Fuck it!" and keep a diary of my last days.
JI: As of this interview, you have a significant body of unpublished work that I would argue rivals anything you’ve published in terms of ambition and overall quality. The astonishing Susuki seems like the breakthrough novel the world was denied (although I have heard it is finally being readied for publication), and The Hideous Child is a novel that would seem strikingly in resonance with current debates around gender identity. And there are other, lengthy, perhaps still unfinished works like The Lovers and Domesday Afternoon that you’ve also invested significant time in, with the excerpts from them that I’ve read suggesting they could be monumental achievements. I feel as if public consideration of your work is haunted by these unpublished volumes, and that you’ve actually achieved far more than you’re currently being given credit for. Is there any reason for the long-term sidelining of so many books? Perfectionism, or simply lack of appropriate publishing opportunities? I think that all of these works taken together would significantly shift how you’re perceived as a writer.
QSC: This is a good question. I must shoulder most of the blame here, I think, though I'd like to reserve a small corner in which to rail against fate and that kind of thing. One of my earliest struggles as a writer was simply to finish things. I managed to solve that problem by planning stories in advance, with the classic 'beginning, middle and end' so that I would actually know where I wanted to go and when I had got there. Once I had got past this hurdle, however, a new pattern was set: I would finish one thing and immediately start on another, since I had so many ideas and didn't want to have any gaps in which I wasn't working on anything new; I was afraid to lose momentum. So, almost all my energy has gone into writing and not so much into revising and getting stuff published. It's been difficult to forge another pattern that works for me creatively. I'm not sure if others will understand how challenging this has been for me, but, well, it has.
One of the products of my trying to build a new pattern in which I stop to give a finished work the post-natal attention it needs has been the novel Graves. I'm not sure when I started writing notes for this. I think it was in 2013. The book itself was finished - again, if I remember correctly - at the end of 2015. This time I wanted to give the novel every chance it could get, so I took time to revise it and I spent a year or two approaching publishers outside of my comfort zone. None of them were interested. I got some very revealing feedback from one publisher whose practice was apparently to count the sales of previous books (which they can do in an inaccurate way from online data). In fact, this seems pretty much standard practice now, though it looks to me like a recipe for ghettoising any writers who have a modicum of originality. One of the publisher's readers apparently liked the novel a lot, but said it was not commercial. It seems like I would have stood a better chance if it had been my first book, since I would not have had the low sales figures from previous books to put them off. Anyway, after a year or two of this, I thought, "Why am I wasting my time?" and I submitted the novel to a publisher who has already taken a positive attitude to my work. So, the book came out four years after it was completed. And that, by my standards, is actually a pretty quick turnaround. It got a bad review at Publishers Weekly and has largely been ignored.
Anyway, I had made a point, for myself, of setting a new pattern with Graves. This is part of a larger plan of getting the backlog you mentioned out into the world. Susuki and The Hideous Child are the next part of this plan. Once I've finished revising a new novella called Hamster Dam, I'll set to work on revising Susuki, which already has a home. Then I'll turn my attention to The Hideous Child. You're right, by the way, about the gender identity theme in The Hideous Child. If I recall correctly, I was writing that in 2010. If it ever gets published it will look now like some kind of bandwagon thing, and I also think in the current cultural climate its original meaning will be distorted. But these are the pitfalls of working in a medium like the novel in the 21st century. The Lovers is unfinished even in first draft, and I think the moment might have passed for that one. We'll see. Domesday Afternoon - this might (I haven't revisited it for some time, so I can't be sure) be my favourite of all the things I've written. It's actually going to be a trilogy, if I get back to it. The first volume, Summerhill, has been written. The length of the thing might put publishers off, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of humans who have read it, anyway.
In short, it's a painstaking process. It really does feel like 'a life's work'. I think I'm largely kept alive by the idea that I haven't put out, or even written, my best work yet. This is the thing that makes me careful when crossing the road.
JI: At the time of our last interview, Chomu Press was just getting underway. Chomu was essential in creating a more or less sui generis approach to contemporary imaginative fiction, combined with a modern and unconventional design aesthetic. Even its critics admitted that it was “taking more risks than anyone,” and some of the writers it published have gone on to relative mainstream success and even been mentioned in legacy organs like the New York Times. The press seemed to inspire fierce loyalty in those who did ‘get’ what it was about, and the shadow of Chomu still hangs over writing. I’d argue that its presence is still missed, in that there is still something of a vacuum here in publishing. What do you see as being the legacy (and future?) of Chomu Press? Did it achieve what you intended it to, and do you think the current writing landscape is any different as a result?
QSC: Ah, well, I'm not sure I'm ready to talk about legacy; I don't think I have enough distance for that. I also find it hard to think about the future generally beyond the general question of, "Are we going to survive?", which seems to be a question in the minds of many, in one way or another, at the moment.
I think I would compare my present self loosely to George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life at the point where his sweetheart-to-be, Mary, shows him a picture she has drawn of him lassoing the moon, since that is what he once said he would do for her, and he finds it a rather painful reminder of his youthful dreams.
I hope this doesn't sound too much of a downer. There's been a lot of pain for me in connection with Chomu. I even had to go into therapy at one point, but soon ran out of money for it. I was staring at train tracks for a while.
I suppose one day I might tell the whole story, but not yet.
If I talk retrospectively, I can say there were two main prongs to our mission. These were that writers who had previously been confined to the coterie by expensive limited editions might find a wider audience through attractively presented POD, and that people generally should realise there are a lot more interesting nooks and corners to contemporary writing than pure genre or the high street bookshop will give you any inkling of. The idea was not to 'give people what they want', but to give them what they might never have thought to seek out. There were also complex notes, that have been kept secret to this day, made in the Chomu database on the aesthetic we wanted in order to keep the catalogue unpredictable whilst having it retain a recognisable identity.
I honestly don't know how Chomu itself will be remembered, but I hope we have given some kind of help to the various authors, and that people will realise these books are worth holding onto, paperback though they may be.
I realise I've been talking in the past tense. Chomu is pupating at present. We'll have to see what emerges.
JI: In recent years you've come out even more strongly against what you see as the detrimental effects of transhumanist philosophies and the scientific worldview in general, even taking aim at virtual modern saints like Alan Turing, as being precursors of a reductive materialist worldview. It's safe to say that this perspective is going to alienate or at least thoroughly challenge a lot of people, because it really does cut against the grain of the generally atheistic, “rational” intellectual elite of the modern Anglosphere, a large section of which also forms the publishing industries and current (Neo-Passeist) literary scene. And as with most generally trenchant criticism, it seems targeted at assumptions these types take for granted and aren't used to seeing called into question. There were hints of this direction in your fiction as far back as fifteen years ago, in a story like “The Fairy Killer,” with its smug rationalist uncle wilfully refusing to accept the consequences of his actions, but in more recent stories and novels such as Out There, Graves, and the forthcoming Hamster Dam, the conflict is given the intensity of a life and death struggle. In these works there’s a deep impression conveyed that something has gone wrong with humanity, almost a kind of sickness or cancer, the effects of which are being felt on all levels of existence, from everyday life to more ethereal realms. Apocalyptic themes are never in short supply in popular culture, but I sense that, as with elements of disdain towards heterosexuality present in your earlier fiction, this hatred of Scientism goes much deeper for you, almost to the level of a personal grudge. Given that many readers will be coming from a default perspective of seeing science as the savior (for problems created by science), how would you explain your position here? I'm also interested in a clarification of any possible oppositional or hopeful elements that you've put forward along the lines of a “Dark Daoism” or “Magical Daoism,” as to date your stories and essays on these themes have appeared in relatively obscure publications, meaning most readers are likely unfamiliar with them (although some of this ground is alluded to in your Neo-Decadent Manifesto of Immaterialism, which will be released next year).
QSC: There's a lot for me to get my teeth into here.
First, my antipathy to science (or what people these days call science) goes way back. I hated science at school. So ... I suppose I want to convey that this is not 'learned behaviour' on my part. It happened from the first time I encountered 'science' in the classroom and it runs mysteriously deep. Now, you can take two different stances to this fact, at least. One is to say that it is an irrational prejudice and another is to say that it is a strong instinct worth investigating. I have, indeed, questioned whether it is an irrational prejudice, but the fact is, try as I have to take on board the arguments of the apostles of science, the same thoughts and feelings always return. The instinct is pretty strong. I have accepted that it's pretty fundamental to me, and if it is going to be answered, it has to be answered at a much deeper level than any answer that has yet been made to it.
I would say that intellectually my position has shifted a little - and this doesn't apply only to my views on science and technology - so that I see the situation more in terms of dilemma than in terms of, I don't know, 'fighting the good fight', let's say. So, in this case the dilemma might be condensed into the question: should humans have remained hunter-gatherers, more or less in harmony with their environment, even though that was a harmony of a fairly unforgiving food chain, or should we have taken the road that most of us did in fact take, into greater comfort and invention and to the brink of complete self-destruction? This simplifies the dilemma, but I don't think it needs much explaining. Or perhaps there was a technological sweet-spot where it would have been better to remain. It has been suggested to me that looming civilisational crises might take us back to a Victorian level of technology. I think I would actually welcome that.
But, whatever the answer to the dilemma posed above, I think there has long been philosophical ballast in the world-view of our science-worshipping age that is, in itself, destructive. I am not sure whether that unspoken, generally assumed philosophy can be decoupled from science or not. At the very least, it distracts us from developing in any other way than materially. But I think it does much worse than this and is actually poisonous. There's a quote from Chesterton that goes: "A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. . . . The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts." If we change some of the nouns here, this remains relevant and true today. I don't really see how you can be a materialist and be in favour of human rights. The two, as far as I am concerned, are in direct contradiction to each other. And it's basically materialism that seems to form the philosophical ballast I'm talking about. I mean, what good does Daniel Dennett think will come of proving that there is no such thing as a conscious subject? What lives will matter under such a conclusion? The 'no lives matter' joke that people find to be in such bad taste (often accompanied by pictures of Cthulhu or a spiral galaxy denoting 'space is big and sciencey'), really only highlights this contradiction at the heart of modernity that no one seems to want to face.
In terms of oppositional elements, one of the ideas I want to go more deeply into is that you can have movement or development without the assumption of a single forward line, which always seems to mean some kind of technological and literal arms race. We can also change the frontiers of our aspiration. What if as much effort was put into exploring the frontier of dream as is currently put into exploring space? Would we, perhaps, feel a bit less like we're trapped on an uncanny spherical island? I mean, that's just an example, or a suggestion, you could say, but there are so many things like this to explore that I think could make the present more meaningful to us so that time is not just a matter of chasing some will o' the wisp of technology into the outer swamp of dehumanisation.
And if we can't avoid thinking about the future, we can change the way we think about that, too. I was talking to a philosopher friend, Cyrus Pacquin, recently about science fiction and he complained about how depressing it is - everything made of metal, nothing organic, all the settings really sterile and inhospitable. I suspect that science fiction writers have actually steered us in that direction. That is what we have come to assume the future must look like. We set our controls for the heart of dystopia. I think the least we can do, as fiction writers, is imagine alternatives so that the default human image of 'the future' is not the Bladerunner cliche.
In terms of the Daoism thing, this is part of my project of imagining a more attractive future than the cyborg megalopolis future we're currently being sold. The idea is, imaginatively, to go outside the box and picture technologies based on entirely different principles to our current tech. I suppose I'm hoping that my studies will help me make this partially practical, too, and not merely visionary. I also have an idea, that I want to develop, about language being a kind of spiritual or intellectual technology.
Maybe these oppositional elements sound weak. Maybe, indeed, they are weak. But I'm working on it.
JI: As is customary at the end of an interview, can you suggest any books, films, artworks or pieces of music that you consider to be important, either representative of where writing and art are “at” at the moment, or where you would like to see them go (these don’t have to be works released in the 21st century, although I’m interested in what current productions interest you now)?
QSC: This is actually a difficult question. I'm not sure I've ever had much of a grasp of at-ness or that I'm really an at-man.
Maybe we shouldn't overlook the obvious. There are things that go without saying for me that are perhaps alien to others. For instance, if you're a writer, you're likely to have a very different view of the writing world to someone who has only been a reader. A large part of this difference comes from survival bias. The reader will have a view of writing based on the 'survivors'. Though they will have heard tales of writers starving in garrets and swallowing arsenic, even these tales will be of writers whose names live on after them, so their deaths are viewed through a filter of poignant, as-if-destined fame. But there are plenty who merely starve, or kill themselves, or go mad, or drift into obscurity, and are not posthumously romanticised for it. And there are those - perhaps the majority - who, after many years, simply stop, and lead something that passes for a normal life. Most writers, while we still live, are in complete ignorance as to whether the posthumous filter will transform our lives in the eyes of others, which means, for us, there might as well not be such a transformation. Even many dead writers now famous (I can't guess at the proportion) really lived in this kind of limbo. And, being a writer and editor, I know many such people. I feel like we could chorus, with Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, "We are the dead!" So, this is at-ness for me - this limbo.
With that preamble out of the way, maybe I should start with mention of some of the Chomu fam - yourself, Brenpyon (Brendan Connell), Markitty (Mark Samuels) and so on. I don't know if it would surprise you to hear that I have remarked on occasion to others that even if Chomu Press had only released your debut collection (I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like), that alone would have justified its existence. I also feel that the publication of some of Brenpyon's work was foundational in actualising the Chomu aesthetic. I think too many writers these days don't understand the way in which literature built itself up over the centuries as a kind of brocade of allusion. Literature feeds on the past and strengthens the past in doing this. Literature is not just instinct. You need to be a reader, too. The allusive aspect of literature is like a kind of initiation. Anyway, to me, Brenpyon's work is built on a strong understanding of this fact. I think he's one of the few Western writers, for instance, who can write in an Eastern style and not just stick the worn-out tropes in a Western narrative. Markitty is, I think, like myself, something of a romantic, and his continued (some would say contrarian) presence and staunchly macabre fiction help keep a pulse in the corpse of small press weird/horror fiction. With Markitty, I think it's worth mentioning his novel A Pilgrim Stranger, which was something of a departure for him, being ... I'm not even sure how to describe it. It's a kind of satire that shifts from Britain in the eighties to the present day, in the manner that something like Back to the Future shifts from the fifties to the eighties. It doesn't seem to have got the attention it deserves, possibly because it's very different from his other work, having overt religious themes and not being 'weird' in the conventional genre understanding of that word.
For me, this is all stuff that is happening and alive, precisely (if only partly) because we don't know the future verdict. We may be the dead, but we're the living dead!
People should also check out the extant Chomu catalogue. I'm not going to list every book, but Nick Jackson, Joe Simpson Walker, P.F. Jeffery, John Elliott ... these are all authors I think people should pay attention to.
I also want to say that I've been in close contact with the work of Zdravka Evtimova recently, and I think her name should be more widely known. She's a Bulgarian writer who writes these really mordant, somewhat dream-like stories with a wonderfully oppressive emotional tone to them - sometimes set in Bulgaria or elsewhere in Europe, sometimes in a desert place that I think might be Afghanistan, sometimes on other planets. There's a feeling of nightmarish deadpan to the narratives. Many of the stories seem to feature bootleg alcohol, and perhaps that's a reasonable metaphor for the stories themselves. They have a strange effect.
Having read some Damian Murphy, who is also interviewed on your blog, I notice that his stories often attain an atmosphere of unique mystery. This is not something that you can fake, I think, so people should look to that quarter for further developments.
Departing from the writing scene as I know it, I've recently become interested in podcasts. I like to have something on while I'm cooking meals and so on. It might not seem like my world, but I've been enjoying the Reply All podcast, which is very good on honing a narrative out of internet-related rabbit-holes. There's a real novelist's fascination, for me, in hearing things about the kind of companies who supply muzak to supermarkets and so on. Anyway, following a Podcast trail, I found this really interesting podcast called Constellation Prize, by Bianca Giaever. One of the 'episodes' is an interview with the film-maker Caveh Zahedi. From that I went on to watch his series for BRIC TV, The Show About the Show. It completely demolishes the fourth wall. It's not just clever, either, it's actually really raw and feels genuinely risk-taking. So, that was the most interesting TV production I've seen for a long time and makes me think that there's plenty more to do with the medium.
Generally, I am just beginning to think, myself, about the possibilities of the podcast medium and online video uploads. I think the lack of a strict TV schedule might mean the freedom to do some really interesting things. People are already doing that, of course. You have a channel like ContraPoints, for instance, on YouTube. I'm not a fan, I have to say, but at least it demonstrates that people are thinking about their creative opportunities. (By the way, this is a kind of a tangent, but has anyone looked into whether PewDiePie's endorsement of Mishima has given momentum to the recent batch of new translations into English? I watched one of his videos where he talks about Mishima and was surprised, not only that Mishima is his favourite author, but that he had intelligent things to say about him. I mean, this is the kind of Bizarro World we're living in right now. I think there are a lot of stereotypes that are really long overdue for the knacker's yard. The old labels are so inadequate now that more than half our current paroxysmal psychosis probably comes from our still using them. Not only that, there seems to be a whole industry based on churning out ever more bewildering derivative sub-labels.)
I'm not a techy kind of guy (I had trouble just getting my printer working the other day), so I'm not likely to start a podcast myself, but if anyone out there would like me on their podcast and can tolerate someone with a very slow voice, they should get in touch. Maybe I've spent too long on this answer, so, although many other things now occur to me, I'll just mention one of them. I have recently read the biography of Kate Bush, Under the Ivy, and one thing it has made me think about is the fact that her music has never had what I think is called 'attitude'. This is remarkable and intriguing, since the subject matter of her songs is very often - I hate to use the term - 'dark'. I think for a long time, and I'm not exactly sure when this started, there's been an assumption that an artist must be consumed with resentment in order to have something to say. I know this has been a major ingredient in my own work. But clearly, it's not essential. Art itself, whatever the case might be with individual artists, does not require it. And maybe one's canvas even becomes larger when one dispenses with resentment. If one can. I think this is worth serious thought, to say the least.
Quentin S. Crisp photographs copyright Joe Campbell and Oscar Oldershaw
BUY THE FLOWERING HEDGEROW
Thursday, February 6, 2020
BY GAURAV MONGA AND JUSTIN ISIS
1. Men’s fashion has always congratulated itself for its unoriginality, and to read most descriptions of it is to gag on supposed superlatives that stick in one’s mouth like stones: sober, somber, serious, dependable, durable. These are qualities we would prize in an undertaker, but not in the kind of man we would like to install in any capacity of our everyday lives, much less value for his appearance. We, the Neo-Decadents, with no certainty of the future and no attachment to the world as it stands, naturally have little sympathy for the garments with which the industrial world of the past few centuries has expected us to conceal ourselves. The lauded tailors of the past: over-rewarded pruners of cobwebs.
2. All business attire is abrogate, null and void, historical effluvia. We would define ourselves as gentlemen except that, subsisting in leisure, there is little about us to warrant the term. Gentility in the modern sense belongs to the professionals, those virtuous beasts of burden: leisure is cultivated savagery. Autocratic predators of sensation, our clothing must be more pitilessly stylized than the world has until now allowed, in the manner of handsome wasps lazily hovering, venomous, variegated.
3. The exaggerated reverence for ‘reputable’ designers and ‘high end’ brands must first be adulterated like cheap wine, then pissed away as easily. The fashion weeks of Tokyo, London, Paris and New York have come to embody all the silly solemnity of church services. Luxury brand outlets—shrines to insipidly ‘tasteful’ merchandise, presided over by sales assistants as nauseating as any effete cleric—should be profaned and robbed whenever possible. Stolen items should be treated carelessly and altered, or simply given to children to do with as they please.
4. We renounce all passéist productions of fast fashion brands, which merely jacket and sleeve men as if laminating them in hasty terror. Our musical subcultures with their sew-on patches and badges betray an ardent and seemly hunger for heraldry, and in response we will reinstate emblems, crests and coats-of-arms. These will refer to our own moods and ambitions rather than the mere continuity of our blood: sigil-suits, external records of visions. This will demand a new blazon language:
Splenetic green, sarcasm counterchanged
Unaffianced artist-arbiter of graffiti
Hooded rags, thereon
An X engrailed
Crazed and discerning in fresh aerosols
Holographic tags, drone eyes rampant
Mercury Junior, regret untenanted
5. We welcome all synthetic fabrics and up-to-date elements of electronic couture: the concept of “quality” materials is an unlovely anachronism. We prize daring and originality over laborious production, and we disdain overpriced and exploitative rubbish, false scarcity and inflated prestige. Both the dismal and outdated costumes of tailors and the valueless stunt concoctions of runway-focused designers are to be replaced with recombinant and modular garments distributed in a decentralized fashion. As the mundane and regular pose death to innovation, the Neo-Decadent Man should inspire in others clothes that smack of the extreme: polar ends, furry frontier hoods, clothes that not so much announce a mission to obscure destinations or outer spheres but carry us to the ends of the Earth.
6. Mills will soon shut down, mills that once produced superfluous denim in outpost remains of erstwhile empires. There will be no looms, no weavers singing songs while stitching intricate embroidery on outmoded shawls; nor will anyone lament the demise of the mills, the looms or the weavers. We will celebrate clothes constituted so differently that an entirely alien and novel function of attire will emerge: clothing of the spirit, and the spirit will not sympathize with the weakness of a bygone era. There will be nothing that smacks of Nature in these clothes—except to the extent that Nature has always secretly desired plastics, nylons and printable electronics, and the mineral kingdom has always relied on us to keep it current. We must do our best to furnish the chemical elements with fresh configurations for our coordinated outfits.
7. AR clothing will extend an outfit’s dimensions to the surrounding environment, eliminating the distinction between public and personal space; we will soon wear clothes that possess color and volume but are essentially fabricless, bearing no cloth. A group of Neo-Decadent Men will produce their own atmosphere, becoming literal advertisements for themselves, the patterns of their robes spreading to nearby information surfaces, their moods visible. The Neo-Decadent Man’s shadow will be treated as another accessory, a portal to his past displaying media extensions, personal profiles, recent thoughts and improvised images.
8. The Neo-Decadent Man will finally free himself from the dull, dreary, and melancholic. He will cease to read novels situated in tiny Nordic pastoral landscapes and will dress boldly, without any fear. He will cease to wear cardigans or any other depressing garment associated with grey days and nostalgia for childhood. The material of his clothes will be unlike any corduroy or similar material that gathers dust, fabric that refuses to remember; instead, it will equip him with vestments that show that he has overcome the failures and impediments of his past.
9. We have nothing but contempt for the quaint revivalist who favors the fancy dress of the 18th or 19th century, including all spiritual descendants of that syphilitic dullard Beau Brummell. Similarly, we have no concern with masculinity defined as the mere absence of conventionally feminine traits—neither in the regressive sense of affirming it, nor in the naively reactionary sense of protesting it. Rather than macerate male style in a welter of agonized self-contradiction, we prize stylistic experiments incorporating the expansion of its true sentiments and tendencies: the priest-astronaut’s tenderness, the barking accountant’s ferocity, the chemist-poet’s hyena-like persistence.
10. The Neo-Decadent Man, not wanting his fashion to be thought of as inferior in audacity to that of his female counterpart, should be swift and bold in making sharp sartorial decisions, and at the same time not run the risk of presenting himself as a dandified clothes fetishist. He should strip himself of dirty denims and replace them with fabric that falls. Most importantly, he should be wary of stultifying trends and should not hesitate to clothe himself in heroic acts, even if in dull, domestic settings. A heavy regal crown-like turban bedecked with jewels, a large silver bracelet and a small dagger hidden beneath his shirt should be encouraged, even whilst taking a jaunt about town.
11. Historically, the military has driven much men’s fashion. Intimately familiar with various campaigns of seduction, performance, and urban exploration—not to mention the creative ridicule and destruction of our enemies—we wish to transpose the elements of persuasion, infiltration and improvisation to our clothing, given that even our leisure has its strategic component. All preening, guilty and ruminative clothes must be cast off, so that our mere presence may preemptively decimate the dead edifices of academic guilds and fast fashion sweatshops.
12. As he navigates crowded urban centers, the Neo-Decadent Man should at all times be aware of his entire appearance—all constituent parts of his total ensemble—for at no point should he be compromised if a fellow passer-by makes reference to even a minor trinket he might have forgotten he had put on. His clothing should be light, in terms of both weight and color. The traditional top-bottom two-piece ensemble should be replaced with a long flowing one piece garment accentuated by accessories adorning the body’s edges: hats and turbans, rings, bracelets and talismans on the edges of the hands. The feet may rest or slip into a slim, almost invisible pair of thin shoes to keep him perpetually alert.
13. Holy colors: gold, silver, pink, chrome yellow, forest green. Metallic harmonies, sharp contrasts, musical jewelry, gleaming devices.
14. The fashion cycle can be compared to ancient agricultural festivities that marked the change of seasons, festivities of death and renewal, so much so that every new garment, once worn, already begins to die. This explains why old fashions resurface. The Neo-Decadent Man may occasionally don a shirt reminiscent of a bygone trend, but not without the necessary ritual to bring the shirt back to life. It is forbidden to remove from your cupboard a shirt you wore in high school and put it on without this necessary ritual, without which the dead clothing must be discarded.
15. Walking through aisles of cheaply produced acrylic garments that lack all levity and bear no resonance with or relationship to the man wearing them, the Neo-Decadent Man will have to garner his own sense of style by conferring meaning to his collar, the fall of his pants or the motif on a cassock; his clothes will signify his psychic profile without conveying any arbitrary message. The working man will not dare arrive for a meeting in his white shirt and grey trousers coupled with a laptop bag. Men will have to appear striking, each in his own way, enhancing his physiognomy, but at no possible cost will two men appear remotely similar, in the manner of rancidly competent professionals arriving at a conference: all will appear distinct, as if comfortable in their own shell, their own cloth, and will conduct themselves accordingly.
16. The office will be altered not just by removing heavy oak furniture and oppressive carpeting, but by a workers’ movement—composed largely of working men—to break down all rules of vestimentary grammar. Women will not find it out of place to return to their luscious long hair of early youth; they will expose their midriffs in fractal pattern saris made of newly devised enduring fibre, whereas men will appear at the workplace in pale tunics, saffron kurtas, red kaftans and phirans. As a result, the office will no longer be defined by the garb of its own failure.
17. The notion of any age being beyond parody is itself ripe for parody. For fashion, parody functions as a disinfectant, and if employed properly, it produces novel beauty through defamiliarization. Neo-Decadence, when considered by passéists and the ill-informed, might sound like a contradiction: how can there be new decay, fresh declines? This becomes clearer when it is realized that our clothes embody the decadence not just of the storied past or insistent present, but of various parallel paths in time. At the crossroads, where the accelerated Empire meets the ruins of remote antiquity, we are setting up looms, studios, 3D printers, molecular assemblers; the peasant threading a bone needle works alongside the sartorial artist-scientist of the future who knits discardable masterpieces from the raw materials of space. As the future declines into the present, Neo-Decadence is born, and the Neo-Decadent Man stands askance, clad in thrift shop items from sideways in time: a wardrobe of resurrected trends and impossible hybrids; the clothes of canceled histories.
18. A typical strategy: recuperation of speculative subcultures. The 1960s Tiki-Mod craze of Outer Mongolia, though unknown to our universe, provides us with the imaginative materials needed to extract garments from Ulaanbaatar death boys with rum mugs, volcano gloves and synthetic suede boots. Now rotate this trend through the Prussian military culture of the 1870s and a new crispness will emerge: the desperate revelry of imminent death, presided over by dapper, drunken tribal gods of the steppe. We can envision a Europe depopulated by the Black Death not in the Middle Ages, but in the 1970s; the tide of Islamic invaders would raid empty discotheques for sequined jumpsuits and flares. As the clothes produced become further estranged from their originating conceits, fashion will be cleansed, and real style will make itself known.
19. The Neo-Decadent Man will draw little inspiration from those ultimate passéists, plants and animals. How pitiful are the birds, who have never thought to invent plastic surgery. Parrots chatter like businessmen, secure in their naive vulgarity, while swans wander the grass like drunken louts, and egrets congregate colorlessly like Uniqlo customers. The same spirit that would rehabilitate the facial contours of a dove is the spirit we will prize in our Neo-Decadent aesthetic consultants.
20. Each man should dress like the unsuspected household god of an imaginary building.
Thursday, June 13, 2019
☆Damian Murphy v. Justin Isis: Dawn of Heresy, Part I - An Interview with Damian Murphy, or: Damian Murphy in Theory and Practice: An Interview with Damian Murphy (Principally a Lecture, followed by an Interview with Damian Murphy)☆
Adapted from a lecture given by Damian Murphy before a reading of one of the stories from Daughters of Apostasy.
One of the most baffling things about occult fiction is that there’s so little of it. There are endless examples of occult motifs in fiction and literature, but very little fiction that has the esoteric at its heart. Admittedly, my criteria is somewhat stringent—I want to come away from a piece of occult fiction with a deeper understanding than I had before, whether I can articulate that understanding or not. If I want to further my intellectual knowledge, I’ll read an academic study. For a deeper grasp of esoteric principles, a more poetic approach is needed.
The focus of my own work is occult initiation and the range of experiences that arise from it. I feel that the mechanisms involved in this phenomena are so universal to human experience that even readers with no direct interest in these matters can relate to the associated themes. Further, I suspect that people who seek out artistic expression in the underground have something very much in common with those who seek out initiatory gnosis. Both of these things can be represented by the symbol of the underground stream—a source of inestimable wealth that continually renews itself, remains hidden from the eyes of those on the surface, and provides a type of nourishment that can’t be found elsewhere.
My goal with writing is to convey, in as much variety as I can, the experiences of the occult initiate. A direct approach is destined to failure. Occult knowledge is never conveyed directly. Not so much because it’s forbidden to do so, though it often is, but simply because it doesn’t lend itself to conventional modes of expression. I must employ a number of different strategies in order to accomplish my aim, some of which I’ll enumerate here.
Visceral description, in which the sensations of the esoteric practitioner are conveyed in as direct a manner as possible, is the first and most obvious technique. I find it a little too obvious for my tastes, especially if it’s employed in a typical occult context. The experience can be more effectively described in terms of a place, or an intimate encounter, or even an object or series of objects. In ‘The Scourge and the Sanctuary’, for instance, one process in particular is represented by an act of trespass into a sumptuous penthouse apartment. The experiences that arise from this act can be taken, in part, as an analog to those of a similar operation that takes place in a subtler locale. One of the rules I set for myself is to always allow for multiple interpretations. There must always be a human thread that runs throughout my stories. This keeps the reader engaged on a very basic level, avoiding the pitfall of losing their attention in a labyrinth of esoterica.
Misdirection has become a favorite technique. So much so that I use it in almost everything I write. With this approach, the reader is given a clear idea of what to follow while other elements are furtively introduced in the background that are not consciously picked up on. This is often seen in film—the eye is encouraged to focus on the action in the foreground while less obvious cues are used to create a mood, set the atmosphere, or even provide a commentary on the film’s themes. Though these elements aren’t picked up on directly, they affect the way the viewer takes in the film.
With written narrative, this is a little trickier, but still possible. Often, at the outset of a story, I’ll have a particular structure in mind which is concealed from the reader. The story itself might comprise an initiation of one or more characters into the mystery that lies at the heart of that structure. The reader is then made to wander through an environment for which a map exists, but that map largely been withheld from them. In the writing itself, emphasis is put not on the underlying structure, but on the intuitions and sensations of the characters. This allows the mysteries of the story to speak directly to the senses while informing the reader’s awareness on a deeper level as well.
The classic method of representing the initiatory process in fiction is allegory, though I find this to be far too obvious. Robert Aickman was quite fond of subverting this device. He would create an allegory, usually Freudian, and lead the reader to suppose that they’d found the symbolic key to the story, only to suddenly break with the allegory in a very unexpected way, making it impossible to apply any single interpretation. This keeps the reader constantly coming back to the narrative in an attempt to find its true meaning. Once the feeling of having understood has been possessed and then lost again, there’s a certain reluctance to fully let it go. The reader wants their cleverness to count for something, and they’ll be willing to work a little harder to see to it that it does.
These methods tend to work best in combination. Some of them are used simply to get people thinking about what they’ve read in a different way than they’re used to. I aim to invite, to entice, even subtly to trick the reader into engaging with the mysteries of the story on a deeper level than they might otherwise.
A lot of my techniques have been taken from films. The work of Hitchcock contains a seemingly endless supply of tricks that can be adapted to text. The single, uncut long shot is a perfect example. This method tends to convey a sense that the viewer is being shown everything that happened, that the director is not cheating or holding anything back. Hitchcock’s most notorious use of this strategy is found in his film Rope, which consists, in its entirety, of two very long single takes. In a lesser director’s hands, this would never work—a single, hour-long shot would tend to overwhelm the viewer. Hitchcock handles it with such elegance that I didn’t even realize that he’d done this until my second or third viewing of the film, and only then because I’d been told.
The same technique can be used in a written narrative. A story might present a single, long scene in which the action is meticulously followed without letting up. This is especially interesting when the narrative involves invisible forces and visionary passages. Closely following a character’s passage into and back out of the visionary state seems to lend an air of legitimacy to the whole affair.
Stanley Kubrick, in his adaptation of The Shining, constructed a hotel which features an impossible architecture. Were the viewer to carefully observe the characters passing from one place to another in the hotel’s interior and, based on what they’ve been shown, attempt to construct a map of the space, the different sections of the map would fail to line up. The map would contain overlapping spaces, an inconsistent placement of several rooms, and doors leading to places that they logically ought not to. Kubrick was fairly subtle about this, though it’s not too difficult to spot once you know what he’s done. The impression given is that the space itself is definitely suspect, yet the viewer can’t quite put their finger on exactly why or how. Techniques such as this one can be employed to give the impression that there’s more than one level of reality at play. This is very difficult to accomplish in a textual narrative without showing one’s hand, but there are means.
Luis Bunuel is another filmmaker whose works I’ve plundered without remorse. In That Obscure Object of Desire, he cast two different actresses in a single role. He did this to convey that the character in question has two conflicting sides to their personality. In the early scenes, the two actresses are made to look fairly similar, while they progressively diverge as the film goes on.
The trick to using this technique in writing lies largely in the way in which the author imagines the character they want to apply it to. Two distinct personas can be created for a single individual, each of which are pictured differently, have different voices and accents. The two versions of the character might diverge in their motivations and desires while maintaining some overlapping characteristics. To the reader, this can be entirely invisible. I’ve tended, in the instances in which I’ve done this, to reveal just enough to give the impression of two contrary personalities. Once it’s established for the reader, however unconsciously, that a character is divided into two or more different parts, that perception can be used to do all sorts of things. Bunuel went out of his way to make it obvious that the character was played by two different actresses, while I tend to take the opposite approach.
Woody Allen once mentioned, in an interview, an idea for a dramatic film in which a constant stream of comedic elements would play out in the backgrounds of the scenes. Similarly, I once conceived a story penned in the most intoxicating prose of which I was capable in which the visionary sequences would be written in the style of Hemingway. Admittedly, this didn’t quite work. The result, ‘A Perilous Ordeal’, was able to be salvaged using a slightly different technique.
A fairly trivial use of archetypal motifs can be deliberately employed to bring initiatory methods to the reader’s mind. One of them is to have one or more characters cross a boundary at a crucial moment. There’s something enticing about handling an event that has major significance in a particularly minor way. Jean Cocteau made liberal use of this sort of thing in his fiction, plays, and films. Crossing a boundary can represent the passage from one world to the next, or from one state of awareness to another.
Acts of trespass and other transgressions can be employed in a similar manner. These things have long been tied to the process of occult initiation. The myth of Orpheus stealing into the underworld to retrieve Eurydice is particularly poignant, as is the rebellion of the Angels depicted in the book of Genesis and the apocryphal books of Enoch among other places. The act of theft makes a frequent appearance in my work. Of course, Mercury is the God of thieves, and theft relates to the Promethean myth of stealing fire from Heaven. There are so many different ways in which theft can be tied to esoteric motifs that I find myself coming back to it again and again. In terms of dramatic tension, the act is endlessly adaptable.
Writing about specific occult techniques can be far more interesting when they’re shown outside of their usual context. I’m never content to write about these activities exactly as I actually practice them. I’d rather switch things up a little—have somebody astrally project into the wallpaper of an opulent hotel, for example, or conduct a complex rite employing mirrors, cigarettes, and a metronome.
Similarly, genre tropes not usually associated with the occult can be used to give a story a unique flavor and atmosphere. I’d like to see a wider range of occult fiction that employs a more playful approach, rather than adhering to the typical horror or gothic motifs. It’s always mystified me that occultism and horror are so often seen as synonymous. As an occult practitioner of 25 years, I don’t find it to be the slightest bit horrific. There are so many possibilities for a truly esoteric literature that it would take an army of authors to exhaust them—homages to the cinema of the French New Wave or to erotic Italian crime comics such as Kriminal and Sadistik; pastiches of Heinrich von Kleist, Robert Musil, or Georges Simenon; sadomasochistic locked-room mysteries; poetic epics intermingled with romantic sex comedies; or long, intoxicating monologues such as those found in the work of Clarice Lispector. I could easily imagine the basic narrative of André Gide’s The Counterfeiters reworked as a study of the occult application of Goethe’s theory of colors. The possibilities are endless.
Almost always, when starting a new piece, I find myself thinking ‘what would it be like if Ann Quin, Dorothy Parker, Tanizaki, Truman Capote, Marguerite Duras, Colette, Robert Walser, or Nabokov were to have written a blatantly occult piece?’ I can’t help but wonder, and find myself compelled to give it a try. Among the most important of all of my influences are authors whose work I haven’t read. There was a period before I’d read Patricia Highsmith, the author of The Talented Mister Ripley, during which, having read about her books, I’d created a completely fictitious literary output for the author in my mind. My anticipation of her work was so deliciously tantalizing that I almost couldn’t bring myself to read it. When at last I did, of course it was something of a disappointment. Her characters are a little flat and unbelievable, she tends to hit the reader over the head with the subtleties of the narrative, and her plots are not quite as intriguing as I’d hoped. The bright side is that there’s now a nonexistent Patricia Highsmith that exists for me alone and whose works I’m free to plagiarize. I haven’t even begun to exhaust the outermost layers of this source.
JUSTIN ISIS: In attempting this interview, I’m faced with the basic problem of wanting or needing to declare some kind of new literary movement, and while I’m more than capable of doing so, I feel that any sort of immediate genre tag, however novel, would do a disservice to your writing, besides basically failing to explain much of what it is "about." Along the same lines, I'm going to suggest that the "content" level of your writing is in some ways less important than, or is at least often subordinate to, its structural and process-based elements, including, presumably, your own private methods of conception and composition.
To state things clearly: we’re both practicing occultists, and we’re both engaged in projects which I feel veer closer to general “literary” writing than to any kind of genre material, while still not really resembling much of what would usually be considered literary fiction, due to their fundamentally different starting conceptions of reality. "Neo-Decadent" and "Post-Naturalist" are terms that come closer to accurately describing them, but even they don't fully express what we’re about, or the extent to which our writing begins from ontological assumptions that I'm fairly sure aren't shared by those currently in control of the mainstream publishing industry and its supportive apparatus of critics and academics.
The problem here is that by saying something like "practicing occultist" or "decadent fiction," I've immediately but quite involuntarily stranded the casual reader in a swamp of outdated associations, stagnant and reeking with the accumulated deadwood of various "Weird" writings, vague and insalubrious Victorian ghost stories, the posturing of allegedly transgressive horrorists, and all kinds of other obstructive detritus which really has nothing to do with the reality of what he or she would encounter in your stories. So, for those who have yet to check out Daughters of Apostasy, The Star of Gnosia, The Academy Outside of Ingolstadt, or any of your other work, I'll do my best to rescue them from the murk: there is nothing remotely gothic, lurid, ghostly or satanic about your stories, which, to the contrary, often unfold in a spirit of conspiratorial joy and exploratory excitement. Rather than operating in a mystically ambiguous haze of undefined and possibly meaningless portent, your fiction is executed with an architect's eye for precise detail and structural integrity, and usually concerns characters with very definite, concrete ambitions, which just happen to involve areas of experience that have traditionally been termed "esoteric." The intensely spatial or perhaps cartographic nature of your writing—with its frequent emphasis on the interiors of imaginary yet plausible and easily-visualized apartments, hotels, churches and even automated rides—along with your tendency to conceal or at least obfuscate certain crucial pieces of information from the reader in a manner that nevertheless seems "fair," recalls writers like Robbe-Grillet, Nabokov and even Gene Wolfe, although I stress (again, for the casual reader looking to investigate) that your books don't really resemble any of theirs, and aren't in any sense excessively "demanding," despite almost exclusively concerning those aforementioned esoteric areas of experience.
As you've noted in another interview, we're not exactly inundated with credible occult fiction, much less any kind of broader cultural framework in which to consider it, even if it did suddenly come into existence. And this seems to have been the case for at least the past century, so that in terms of critical consensus, something like Graham Greene’s Catholicism might be tolerable for the “moral gravitas” it supposedly lends his fiction, but Yeats’s spiritual system and Golden Dawn membership can only be embarrassing anomalies to be explained away or ignored. A mystic like Machen can be dismissed as a “horror writer,” a mere precursor to Lovecraft, while Crowley’s fictional output can be ignored entirely. There's a persistent tendency to sideline these writers, all while holding up the most staid and unimaginative materialist Realists as the true purveyors of "serious" fiction. Can you explain why you think this is the case, or more exactly, why so few initiated writers have protested this shabby treatment? Note that by "credible occult fiction" I'm assuming you share my idea of it as fiction that results from direct experience of ritual work and is intended to offer or at least hint at some kind of gnosis through the act of reading, and/or fiction that is composed using the same mental and spiritual faculties involved in ritual or ceremonial work—rather than fiction that simply references spurious grimoires and arcane abstractions as stage dressing for a genre exercise.
DAMIAN MURPHY: One of the things I’ve tried to do is create a symbolic vocabulary of initiatic experience that hasn’t been used elsewhere. Given this as one of my starting points, it seems inevitable that I’ll end up creating something that doesn’t fit with conventional ideas of literature or genre fiction.
I feel like I should give some concrete examples of the motifs I’ve made use of in order to keep my answers from being too abstract. Among them are anonymity, theft, games of strategy and games of chance, aristocracy, and trespass. There are others. On the one hand, I try to make my use of these things as easy to understand as possible, while on the other I tend to switch up the underlying associations from story to story in order to keep these symbols fluid and organic in the reader’s mind. This is all put to the service of igniting an understanding that can’t be conveyed by purely descriptive means.
To elucidate this idea, I can talk a little bit about the use of theft in different contexts. "Seduction of the Golden Pheasant" opens with a party in an opulent chateau in which the guests are encouraged to steal something of value before the night is through—this act has repercussions both subtle and explicit that continue to unfold throughout the story. In "The Savants of the House of Exile" the spiritual aspirant is compared to a thief in the night, having stolen away with the perfection of the Absolute in their desire to know the unknowable. In "The Hieromantic Mirror" a pilfered game piece is used to affect a shift in the relations between a consulate and the embassy it represents. Each of these examples involves something essential about the act in question, yet each reveals a different facet of the jewel.
Occultism is so often associated with the horrific in film and literature. I want to portray it in the light of my own experiences, which tend far more toward exploration, strategy, revelation, and luxury (if not necessarily in the material sense). I’m very happy with “Conspiratorial joy” as a descriptive term for my work. On the one hand, I want to present the reader with a mystery that’s impenetrable yet able to be explored, while on the other I want to make them feel that they’re part of the exploits of the characters they’re reading about, that they’re able to get away with something that they might not otherwise allow themselves to experience.
To give another example, in “The Scourge and the Sanctuary” a young woman forces her way into an abandoned penthouse for no other reason than to indulge in the act of occupying the space. I want to allow the reader to indulge, to the greatest degree possible, in the perverse pleasure of committing a minor transgression. This all ties back into the occult themes of the work. The esotericist is no stranger to crossing boundaries and exploring things that are forbidden to them. By mingling the esoteric with a relatable experience, I hope to convey an impression of what it’s like to participate in an initiatory process.
You’ve cited mystical ambiguity, which is one of my main points of frustration with so much of occult literature. Another lies in refusing to step outside the bounds of official occult history. M.R. James was very fastidious about this, and a lot of occult writing tends to follow his lead. I don’t think this necessarily has to be a bad thing, it’s just not at all what I want to do. I would much rather create a piece of writing that the reader feels free to explore on their own terms than to provide an academic illustration of some aspect of esoteric lore.
On the other side of things, I think the reason that occult fiction has been so downplayed is that it has largely tended to be self-consciously rooted in the domain of genre work. Even Crowley’s more occult-oriented fiction tends to come off as inauthentic and even campy. His best stories consists of realist narratives like “The Stratagem”. Orders like the Golden Dawn tend to get lumped in with things like Theosophy and the spiritualist trends of the period. I think more hope might lie in outlying practices and individual approaches to initiation, as well as bridging the gap between purely human experiences and those of the aspirant on the path of initiation. I can imagine an esoteric version of Good Morning, Midnight, written with all of the pathos and complexity of Jean Rhys’s classic novel, yet replete with initiatory themes and motifs.
As an aside regarding Gene Wolfe, whose New Sun books are a tremendous influence on my own work—at some point, he started producing novels that resemble crossword puzzles. These later books don’t quite capture the poetry or mystique of the New Sun series, yet they do have a certain attraction insomuch as they seem to comprise the kind of puzzle one might find within the pages of a newspaper (though, of course, far more complex). When I was very young, I used to be fond of the "Two-Minute Mysteries" series—little one or two-page narratives in which a mystery was presented that the reader must try to solve using the clues provided in the text. Wolfe's post-New Sun work brings these to mind, combined with what might result if one were somehow to superimpose every branch of a Choose Your Own Adventure book into a single line, all processed with a clinical eye for technical detail. I can't help but be strangely fascinated by this.
I’m happy to read, in the question above, that my work doesn’t come off as too demanding or difficult. My aim is to produce prose that reads like a fever dream of an opiated trance, gently ushering the reader from point to point without the slightest bit of friction. Elaborate settings are a big part of this. I take a number of approaches to this aspect of the work. One of them is to try to recreate the setting of a particular artwork that strikes me in a certain way, then to alter it according to various criteria. I’ve done this a lot with the paintings of Remedios Varo among others. In doing so, I get the benefit of exploring these spaces in a very different way than I have before, and of picking up a thread that’s been laid down before me and developing it further. I spend a lot of time mentally inhabiting these spaces. There is in this a very conscious elaboration of the talismanic art.
As for your assessment of "credible occult fiction"—yes, absolutely. I think it’s definitely possible to reveal aspects of occult gnosis through writing and I’ve continually attempted to do so in my stories. I don’t view these experiences as necessarily the exclusive purview of the practicing occultist or initiate. Initiation allows for the completion of certain processes that are unlikely to take place otherwise, but the attendant exaltation of consciousness, the elevation of point of view, and the direct perception of particular mysteries are experiences that can be had by a wide range of people in a wide range of circumstances. This can be done without the slightest betrayal of “occult secrets”, which are specific either to particular groups or particular operations.
JI: As previously stated, one of the things that absolutely has to die in the 21st century is the belief that "materialist humanism" is somehow the default position of "serious" literature, and that a kind of recalcitrantly shallow journalism must of necessity underlay all such endeavors. I don't believe that the omphaloskeptic complacency of a David Foster Wallace or Zadie Smith mindset is best suited to grappling with the highly symbolic correspondence bases of late capitalism; if anything a Kabbalistic mindset seems more appropriate to the task. With that said, thanks to the Internet, chaos magick has in recent years had something of a pop resurgence, while various older magickal texts are more freely available than ever to the solo practitioner, and the lodges of more traditional orders are better able to communicate globally. Alongside all this, figures like Robert Anton Wilson, Genesis P-Orridge, Grant Morrison, Carl Abrahamsson and others have done much to pave the way for a kind of global Occulture. I'd argue that we're still in the early stages, though, and that the various disciplines, traditions and perspectives being synthesized at present still haven't really cohered into anything like a shared cultural base that could give rise to the kind of fiction we desperately need. Your writing seems to me to be at the forefront here, and so the question becomes—is this even something that SHOULD happen? Occult means "hidden," after all, and obscurity has its own pleasures. It'd be dishonest to deny the appeal of an elite audience of sophisticates, but my own position is very much "lay claim to the fictional mainstream." I'm interested to hear how you feel about this, though, and how you think it could possibly develop. Can you imagine what a general Damian Murphy-influenced art and writing scene might be like, and what the wildest far-future consequences of such an outcome would be? For example, if fairly unintelligent teenagers in the future began reflexively copying your writing style and fictional concerns without any real understanding of, or interest in, the background and life circumstances that led you to develop them: also what you envision such an "inauthentic" mass-copying of your approach might look like in related fields (film, music videos, mobile games, etc.)?
DM: For whatever reason, I have a kind of blind spot in regards to groups of people, movements, scenes, and cultures. I seem to have been designed to navigate the world almost exclusively by way of anomalies and exceptions. I can see the need for a kind of occulture, and would even be happy to contribute to it, though I can only ever see myself operating outside of it. Seeking out and finding things that are obscure or hidden is something that comes very naturally to me. That said, I do take steps to try to expand my writing’s readership as much as possible. I definitely don’t intend to keep my work deliberately obscure.
While I can’t quite envision how my work might fit into a larger movement, I have given quite a bit of thought as to how it might be put to use outside of the confines of conventional narrative. My stories are anything but instruction manuals, yet there are other possibilities. I often try to create a kind of complex Sufi parable, something vaguely akin to the “Two-Minute Mystery” pieces referred to above. By taking the time to delve into the text and solve the mystery (insomuch as a single solution exists), one might find something of genuine worth that can hopefully be applied outside of the context of the story.
I’ve written pieces in which narrative texts are put to use for a variety of occult or religious purposes—as oracles, keys, prayers, navigational devices, or simply as a means of contact with the invisible. My work often reaches toward embodying this kind of thing itself, though it’s important that it retains the ability to be read purely for enjoyment. Whatever utility my writing might have would be lost if it was not compelling for its own sake.
I like the idea of laying claim to the mainstream. It would be bad strategy to assume that the ideas and techniques behind our work could never find a large audience. I don’t think that popular acceptance necessarily stands opposed to obscurity—I think it’s possible to have the best of both worlds. Things that are truly hidden remain hidden no matter how much attention is placed on them. There are states one can attain through occult practice, for instance, that, though a wealth of written material is available regarding them, are still very difficult to actually get to and are consequently truly known to few. I think it’s possible for a person’s work to gain widespread popularity and yet retain a very inaccessible core.
As to what it would look like were my work to have a larger impact, I find myself descending into pure fantasy whenever I try to visualize that kind of thing. Inauthentic appropriations of my fiction could work very well in the context of electronic gaming. I could see “The Star of Gnosia”, “The Ivory Sovereign”, or “The Scourge and the Sanctuary” working perfectly as Nintendo-era games, while “Abyssinia” might make a fitting Atari 2600 demo. It would almost work better if a relatively shallow approach to the stories themselves was used, appropriating some of the imagery without necessarily making reference to the ideas that lay behind them. I would be beside myself with joy if somebody were to actually do this, or if I went to the Ghost Box website and saw that somebody had created a soundtrack for “The Imperishable Sacraments” or something.
Appropriating material into what seems like an inappropriate medium is an art form in itself. Several years ago I began a project in which each of the 18 chapters of James Joyce’s Ulysses was re-interpreted as a 2600 game. The whole series was intended to serve as a Kabbalistic exegesis of the book. My thought was that somebody else could do the same thing for the Catholic side of the text. I gave up on the project when I realized that, were I to pay the book its full due, it would end up consuming the rest of my life. While I love the idea of devoting one’s life to something so deliciously outré, there were other things I knew I’d want to do that were probably more important.
JI: Along those lines, some of your most strikingly original stories are those like “A Mansion of Sapphire” and “A Book of Alabaster,” whose plots unfold from lengthy descriptions of imagined gameplay in fictional console titles, specifically those on the now-retro ZX Spectrum and Atari 2600. The only other example of this technique that comes to mind is the relatively obscure novel Lucky Wander Boy by D.B. Weiss, who mined the idea for some vaguely philosophical effects, but with nowhere near the level of textured exploration present in your stories, where the sustained mental effort of following the characters’ progress becomes something like an occult meditation or visualization technique, especially given that the sumptuous descriptions—packed with complex sensory details—would seem to be impossible, given the hardware limitations of the systems in question. And yet, reading these stories, it occurred to me that this was in fact how a child playing these games would experience them: as discrete and completely immersive worlds, rather than the primitive tableaux of crudely pixelated sprites that appear to adult gamers. And this brings me to a triangulation of sorts that I’d like to suggest has relevance to your work: video games, psychedelics and the occult, particularly as they pertain to “the topology of the ineffable."
Looking back, much of the more respected 20th century literature was preoccupied with time and how to depict its passage, along with related issues of the telescoping of memory. Proust, Woolf, Powell and Ballard are obvious examples. In contrast, your work seems much more preoccupied with space, and the way the mind constructs and organizes it. This “production of space” theme seems especially present in “Permutations of the Citadel,” an incredibly complex story in which, by making alterations to a map of a hotel present within the hotel itself, the characters are able to alter the building’s architecture, through which they can access a kind of reverse-reality filled with fictional and mythical archetypes, with the final aim of reaching an impossible inner room. Apart from being an exploration of the interpenetration of fiction and reality, this story seems to be at heart a literary instantiation of the map editor function present in countless video games. What it and the other stories just mentioned have in common is the idea of the macrocosm contained within the microcosm—that the Absolute can be present within a model or representation produced through magickal means. This seems to relate to the technique you mentioned of “translating” one fictional medium’s content into a different medium.
I'm reminded here of other recent “transforms” in things like the Petscop series of YouTube videos, which is in essence a creepypasta story about a haunted PlayStation title translated into the medium of constructed video game footage and its accompanying commentary, amounting to a kind of Alternate Reality Game—almost the opposite “transform” to the stories of yours dealing with lengthy descriptions of fictional games. Despite its status as a series of online videos, Petscop is clearly a literary narrative, with a questionably reliable narrator and much implied backstory to be read between the lines, and its ongoing storyline makes more sense when read as literature than it does as a film or even a standard web series. It strikes me as the pioneer for a new kind of narrative. Now, with the concurrent rise of VR and AR technologies, we seem to be experiencing a lack of any clear separation between online spaces and those of our everyday physical landscape, and it seems to me that childhoods immersed in video game worlds were fairly apt training for the current state of multiple interpenetrating realities, as well as preparation for the other realms of experience accessible through entheogen use, astral travel and other traditional occult techniques. Do you see fiction as being a means of constructing a macrocosm-housing microcosm, and if so, do you see digital spaces as being merely one part of a spectrum that extends through more conventionally immaterial realms? I’m curious as to whether you feel that video games, psychedelics and the occult are overlapping technologies, or even aspects of the same thing. If this is the case, then are there any other elements or influences that have led you to take this fictional approach?
DM: One thing that still fascinates me about older computer and console games is their tendency to convey a distinct sense of place. Modern electronic games do this by creating environments that more or less resemble our own (so much so that, after spending even a short amount of time playing them, I need to go outside and gorge myself on visual stimuli to recalibrate my senses back to physical textures). Older games are much more abstract, and hence are capable of granting access to far more curious feelings and associations.
There are games I remember playing in the early 1980s that conveyed a sort of genius loci that remains with me to this day. Sabre Wulf comes to mind with its jewel-like forests and charging pink rhinos. These feel every bit as vivid as the physical locations I remember visiting in my youth. I occasionally dream of these environments, often in completely different settings. The derivation of a sense of place from an abstracted symbolic environment seems directly tied to the prospect of accessing visionary spaces using cryptographic sigils and holy names (among other things).
“A Book of Alabaster” brings another element into play—nostalgia. One of the things I was getting at with this story is that, while nostalgia is necessarily delusional, that doesn’t mean it’s wholly without worth. I don’t think we really remember the feelings associated with our past experiences. I think the feeling of nostalgia is something new, created in the present, which our brains tend to associate with particular memories. By exploring nostalgic feelings with the assumption that they have nothing to do with anything that actually happened, I think it’s possible to find aspects of the self that were previously concealed. Of course, it’s necessary to avoid falling into the trap of chasing after the illusion of an ideal past.
Spatial experience became an obsession for me in the early 2000s when I finally managed to access my capacity for visionary experience. It took me quite a bit of work to do this. I underwent fairly conventional esoteric training over the course of nearly a decade prior to that time. The gates of astral perception were very stubborn in my case (despite all of my earlier experience with psychedelic substances). When they finally burst open the trickle turned into a flood more or less overnight. Every aspect of my life changed very quickly after that. It was as if I’d found my true vocation.
There is a very human tendency to spatialize every aspect of experience. Henry Corbin writes extensively about this in terms of religious experience, particularly in The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism and Temple and Contemplation. With the idea of spatiality comes that of orientation, which is a key I keep returning to throughout my work. Physical orientation and symbolic orientation are intrinsically linked. While the former is needed in order to navigate the outer world, the latter is needed in order to navigate the subtler planes. Symbolic orientation comes into play in a number of stories—“The Imperishable Sacraments”, for instance, with the traversal of the southern star which guides the main character from one place to another. In “The Savants of the House of Exile” the interface between the two sides of the mirror (so to speak) is explored in terms of orientation within Piranesi’s labyrinthine prisons.
There are overlaps between video game environments, occult activity, and psychedelic substances, though they’re each so distinct that I think it’s worth paying as much attention to the differences between them as the similarities. I wouldn’t say that they’re different aspects of the same thing as much as they tend to refer back to some of the same things. Orientation, for example, can be a part of all three of them. When I was 15, I found, upon ingesting LSD, that I could perceive the winding streets of my neighborhood as if from a birds-eye view while I was walking through them. Before that, I’d never quite grasped how they were all connected.
I remain somewhat militant and traditional when it comes to occult practice. I don’t think that ingesting a substance can ever reproduce the cumulative effect of a regular discipline. A video game, on the other hand, could theoretically be as immersive as a dream or astral vision, though there are particular laws to which the latter two adhere that a human-created environment would be unlikely to capture.
Orienting oneself in a video-game environment, of course, is a huge part of the experience, necessitating endless maps and navigational strategies. One of my favorite books when I was a kid was a compendium of game walkthroughs entitled The Book of Adventure Games. At the time (the mid-1980s), I owned about one third of the games documented in the book—text-based games, dungeon crawlers, several precursors to the point-and-click adventures that gained in popularity a few years later. I became obsessed with the maps for games that I’d never played. I’d study them, try to imagine what they referred to, create maps of my own with the sole intention of making them as intriguing as possible.
This, in part, has inspired a technique that I’ve used in some of my longer novellas. I’ll create chapter headings first without having any idea what they might refer to, then write a story that conforms to them. A certain amount of editing and rearranging as the piece is composed is always necessary. “A Spy in the Panopticon”, among other stories, was written in this way. This is also partly inspired by some of the early French and American film serials—films like Les Vampires, Judex, The Exploits of Elaine, and The Hazards of Helen. The titles of the episodes of these films are so evocative that they could almost comprise an artwork in themselves.
JI: I had a similar childhood obsession with video game strategy guides, often those of games I never ended up playing. In fact I essentially learned to read from things like Jeff Rovin’s How to Win at Nintendo Games series (a slightly later analogue of the “Book of Adventure Games” you mentioned), and after that I engaged with screenshot-heavy guides like Secret of Mana by Rusel DeMaria as if they were graphic novels rather than mere manuals for the games themselves. I’ve often thought this “strategy guide comic” format would be an interesting avenue to pursue, along the lines of Petscop. There’s really limitless freedom with this kind of thing and I’m surprised that we aren’t seeing more crossplatform hybrids springing into existence.
And I suspected you were doing the “create chapter headings first and come up with the story later” thing, because I do it a fair amount myself. In some cases I’ve held onto particular titles for years before finding anything appropriate to do with them. You also make use of what I’m forced to term “concept album subdivisions” — dividing a larger story into numerous individually-titled sections, with characters and events that sometimes don’t seem to overlap at all, until the greater design emerges on later reflection.
I’d risk saying that we’re both “top down” writers — in other words, the structure or formal armature of what we write is as important as the “content” (or IS the “content”), and our creative process is likely different from that of writers who seem content to dick about with unfocused drafts, character outlines, logorrheic overwriting/cutting (binging and purging?), and all other time-wasting practices suggested by the workshop industry. I suspect that a large percentage of currently active writers are ineptly screening imaginary films in their heads and then doing their best to transcribe what they “see.” This is in line with the emphasis on what to my mind is the most boring possible “transform” — a book into a film/TV series (there now seems to be little difference between the two). Because the hinge here is the idea that literary art aspires to the condition of dramatic performance or filmed theater, and I’ve never wanted to be a dramatist, much less a screenwriter. But the idea that a story or novel is more like a poem, a building or a drug than it is some kind of episodic visual narrative doesn’t seem to be especially common, though it’s one I wish was more influential, if not just because it would spare us the soporific supply of little word-prompted mental movies that pass themselves off as important novels.
With that said, in your opening piece you noted the use of more oblique filmic and game influences on your writing. I’d emphasize that you almost always employ the techniques you mentioned without drawing attention to them. This is in contrast to the amusing yet more crassly transparent approach of OuLiPo or some other “experimental” writers. Your writing always seems polished and “seamless,” despite being by your own admission process-based or rooted in consciously-chosen conceptual frameworks. To my mind, this kind of approach is an absolute necessity for modern writing, and demolishes the need for any of the cliched and outdated vocabulary of “character development,” the artificial “story vs plot” distinction, etc.
Anyway: to expand on an example you gave, the boxed set A Spy in the Panopticon comprises a suite of stories and novellas published as several discrete booklets, chapbooks and fold-out inserts. None of the fictional pieces contained therein are overtly connected to any of the others, but when taken together they function as a sort of fictional hyperobject with recurring images, themes and motifs, pivoting around ideas of hereditary magickal power, obscure “matriarchs,” spyholes, objects such as cameras and lenses, notaries and other official functionaries, etc. In the title novella, the main character makes use of these devices to write her own novel, one with the same name as the story she inhabits. It’s the sort of thing that would seem obviously and irritatingly recursive, were it not for the deeply strange, textured prose and almost 60s-psychedelic mood. It feels like the central work around which the other stories in the box set orbit, each of them offering a different key to the meaning of the overall work. Apart from its unique physical presentation, which really deserves more descriptive justice than I’m doing it here, A Spy in the Panopticon seems like the benchmark for what we could call the Cubist novel or object-oriented plot, one based around a constellation of images and motifs rather than recurring characters. There’s a submerged internal logic here, one open to multiple permutations, as there is really no fixed order in which the pieces need be read. As with the pre-chosen chapter headings, did you explicitly start with a list of objects and motifs that you treated like game pieces, developing the stories from their interactions? Are you planning any future works along these lines, and can you think of where such expanded fictions might go next?
DM: A Spy in the Panopticon, as a boxed set, was put together without any overt regard to theme, though I wrote all of the pieces in it during the same period (with the exception of “La Fleur Infernale” which was written for the William Blake anthology All is Full of Hell). They definitely feel of a piece now that I look back on them. I’ve long had a tendency to hide clues to one story in other stories, and this kind of thing is not absent within the pieces in the set.
The story “A Spy in the Panopticon”, aside from being based on the chapter titles, definitely started with a collection of motifs and aesthetic cues. Game pieces comprise a good metaphor for the way in which in which I’ve developed the different aspects of several of my stories. I often end up moving sections of the narrative from one place to another, switching their order and swapping set pieces and key phrases. There’s a very particular internal logic that each piece must adhere to. As the story progresses, the pieces all begin to fall into place, usually with a little rearranging. By the time it nears completion, if all goes well, the different facets of the narrative flow together like a seamless whole.
My desire is in no way to construct what looks like an experimental story with this process, but rather to create a fairly traditional narrative that has a clear sequence of events, yet which harbors a complex, self-referential structure that functions as a system of internal mirrors. The book that’s written within the story “A Spy in the Panopticon” could be taken as a sort of parody of this process.
“A Spy in the Panopticon” is a little bit along the lines of the elaborate crossword puzzle that I mentioned above. A second narrative is concealed behind the parts of the story that are shown openly. My hope is that the hidden layers of the story will resonate on some level with even the most casual reader, providing a degree of depth that can be accessed with no effort on the reader’s part, but which rewards whatever effort they put into it.
All of my work is intended to make the reader desperately want to know more and to return to the narrative in the hope of finding it. There’s a delicate balance between creating a desire to understand and satiating that desire. If the narrative provides too many questions without enough answers, it tends to lose the reader’s trust—they’ll think the author is merely bluffing and that the answers don’t exist. To resolve every question in the reader’s mind, on the other hand, is to go too far. There should be a deficit, in my opinion, at the end of every piece of fiction—a number of things the reader still doesn’t know or can’t quite understand. This deficit is like a door left half-open. It allows the reader to explore a piece on their own without having their hand held by the author. Ideally, there should be a feeling that a deeper understanding lies just around the corner, that it will all become clear with just a little more examination. Of course, there needs to be a certain amount of truth to this. When a reader comes back to look for more, they should be rewarded not only with some answers and additional layers of depth, but with further questions as well.
JI: Much of your work has been published in lavish, opulent, ornate, lapidary, etc. editions from Ex Occidente/Mt. Abraxas. These editions go beyond mere hardbacks and are incredible works of art in themselves, with complex illustrations, dust jackets and frontispieces, high quality paper and bindings, and formats that often exceed the standard dimensions of most commercially-available fiction books. In the case of the recent Abyssinia and Psalms of the Magistrate, and your editing project The Gift of the Kos’mos Cometh!, it’s safe to say that even if the text inside were random gibberish, the books would still present considerable visual and tactile engagements worthy of serious time investment. With that said, how important do you consider this mode of presentation to be to the reading experience and reception of your work, and do you find the increasing popularity of these editions to be a reaction against Kindle culture and the kind of e-books-as-default mindset that took over in the last decade? I don’t want to waste time rehashing the “death of print” debate, which was tedious from the start, but it’s safe to say that these productions (and the editions of other imprints like Zagava) have pushed book design forward at a time when people seem to increasingly take it for granted that “book” refers to a file on an e-reader. My sense of reading these works is that their physical heft, texture and overall material quality greatly contributes to the reading experience, if not just because you can’t easily take them on the train or stuff them into a jacket pocket, much less flip through them in between browsing social media sites and checking text messages. For the most part, I don’t care whether people read my books in ebook or print, but I’d resist ever switching entirely to the former, as my desire to write is in large part a desire to produce physical objects, and when it comes to non-standard text layouts, I find the ebook medium to be fairly unsatisfactory for representing things the way I want. My only concern is that the limited print runs and high prices of many of your books will correspondingly limit their audience. Do you think this is a problem, and what do you see as the future direction of book production and consumption, particularly that of your own work?
DM: The format of a book has a big impact on the way the text is taken in, but I don’t necessarily think that the experience of reading something in an opulent hardcover edition is better than reading it in paperback. Different formats each have their advantages. The most important thing is probably the typesetting, font, margins—all of the things that most readers don’t consciously notice but which very much affects how they respond to the text.
So far, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to reprint my earlier stories in definitive editions that are more generally available. My hope is to continue with this, eventually making everything available in an affordable, paperback format. One part of me likes the idea of having a lot of disparate pieces of writing in different places, some of which are nearly impossible to find, while another part of me is attracted to the idea of having a series of collected works that includes absolutely everything. While I ultimately lean toward the latter, I currently seem to inhabit the best of both worlds.
I don’t have a problem with electronic formats, but, like yourself, I prefer to produce a tangible object. There are entire categories of experience that are, if not eliminated, at least drastically altered with electronic reading devices. Aside from a physical manifestation, a book can also have a more tenuous component. More than one modern publisher (specifically of occult books) claims that each of their releases has a particular spirit behind it. In Mao Shan Taoism, there’s a type of book that exists in two places at once—on the physical and in the invisible. Part of the process of mastering the techniques revealed in the book involves bringing its two component parts together, which requires a certain degree of attainment. I think it’s very natural to regard a book as a talisman and to conceive strategies by which its function as such may be furthered. On the other hand, it seems likely that this kind of thing will start to occur with electronic formats as well. It probably already has.
Books as physical objects have their drawbacks as well. Too many physical possessions can lead to the same type of desensitization as reducing one’s experience to a handful of devices. You can only pay attention to so many things before quality starts giving way to quantity and literary pursuit becomes a kind of gorging of the intellect. I still read a fair amount of fiction, though I find, as I get older, I tend to read far less books on the occult, religion, and the initiatory mysteries than I used to. When I was younger, I tried to read everything that I could find, so long as it concerned my areas of interest. In recent years, I keep coming back to a handful of essential sources and allowing myself to go deeper and deeper into them, finding threads within them that require a more meticulous and prolonged study to catch.
JI: In line with the current ongoing Neo-Decadent reformulation of everyday life, you’ve tasked yourself with producing the Neo-Decadent Manifesto of Occultism. Without necessarily recapping the entire work, can you give a brief outline of where you see the Current heading, especially as it pertains to future writing? To my mind, besides the aforementioned occult/game stories, the territory I’m interested in seeing you explore further is best represented by “The Immaculate Scrambled Automat” in the upcoming Neo-Decadent Cookbook, which verges on science fiction, and especially “The Eroto-Comatose Automaton,” perhaps your most conceptually violent and intricate piece. In the latter, there’s a long scene where, as part of an escalating magickal battle between two warring brothels with opposed ritual systems, the protagonist improvises a public ceremonial offensive over the course of several hours, folding in cues from her urban environment in the manner of a Situationist dérive, recruiting strangers as participants and working in all kinds of seemingly random signs and inputs. Besides bringing to mind Mandaean eschatology, Communist kitsch, bureaucratic absurdism, the aesthetic of German New Objectivity, 1960s retro-futurism and more recent hauntology, it reminded me of Joel Biroco’s “juxtapositional magick,” and the relatively underknown novel The Adventuress of Henrietta Street by Lawrence Miles. Are you planning any other stories in this vein, and how do you see it interacting with the overall styles and themes of Neo-Decadent fiction?
DM:“The Immaculate Scrambled Automat” started out as an attempt to capture the atmosphere of a particularly vivid dream I’d had several months before writing the piece. I woke from the dream thinking “I have to somehow make this into a story”. A number of additional elements fell into place in the writing—retro-futurism, hauntology, and classic fetish imagery, among other things. These were all put to the service of elucidating the feeling that arose from the original dream. The piece is very short—less than 1500 words—which is uncharacteristic of my writing. I’d like to write more pieces along these lines. We’ll see which way the muse takes me.
It feels like there are so many different directions in which Neo-Decadence can go. I’d like to see some of the more peculiar aspects of the aesthetic landscape of the 20th century adapted into its mystique. This is kind of what I was trying to do with “The Eroto-Comatose Automaton”. I had in mind a number of different visual influences—Soviet-era Russian film posters, the S&M photography of Ellen Von Unwerth, the themes and motifs of early DEVO—and had a very strong idea of what I wanted with the end result. I spectacularly missed the mark, yet, as so often happens, I managed to create something that I could never have planned.
I’ve found this type of aiming and almost intentionally missing to be incredibly fortuitous. I read somewhere that Throbbing Gristle once tried to create a perfectly normal rock song. They’d originally titled it ‘Hit by Rock’, but ended up renaming it ‘Hit by a Rock’ after determining that the resulting piece of music sounded like nothing else ever recorded before. There are few techniques more effective that getting it wrong.
JI: As is customary at the end of an interview, can you suggest any books, films, artworks or pieces of music that you consider to be important, either representative of where writing and art are “at” at the moment, or where you would like to see them go (these don’t have to be works released in the 21st century, although I’m interested in what current productions interest you now)? I’m thinking here about what might be some of the cornerstones or building blocks of a new occult-infused Post-Naturalist approach to writing. And I’m particularly interested in the “handful of essential sources” you mentioned, that you find yourself going deeper and deeper into as the years pass.
DM: The first authors that come to mind are yourself, Quentin S. Crisp, and Brendan Connell. M. Kitchell has been putting out some very interesting work, as has Andrew Condous, though the latter’s books are all out of print and hard to come by at the moment. Jane Unrue’s book Love Hotel is extremely compelling. I’m very much inspired by her approach to both prose and narrative, though I can’t imagine anybody being able to reproduce it. There’s a temptation to just keep naming recent authors I like, which would quickly become exhaustive. Berit Ellingsen is very good. As is Kristine Ong Muslim. Both of them may have had a hand in inspiring “The Immaculate Scrambled Automat”.
I should mention Jane de La Vaudère, a 19th-century decadent author, just recently translated through Snuggly Books, whose prose I’ve become obsessed with. The strange thing about this author is that I like everything except for the occult sections of her fiction. As soon as she starts writing about occultism, my eyes glaze over. This well may be professional jealousy! I feel the same way about Balzac, whose Séraphîta I find intolerably dull (despite the fact that I name-drop it in one of my stories).
As for comics, there’s so much interesting work coming out now that it’s impossible to keep up with. A lot of people are doing interesting things with the Risograph copy machine. Le Dernier Cri is like the Ex Occidente of disturbing underground comics. Artists like Mat Brinkman, Julia Gfrörer, Tetsunori Tawaraya, Eamon Espey, Theo Ellsworth, Daria Tessler, Paqaru, and Igor Hofbauer have been putting out the kind of work I’ve been dreaming of ever since I first discovered underground mini-comics in the late 1980s. This is just the tip of the iceberg. I manage to find interesting new comic artists literally every week.
I feel like music has advanced ahead of writing by leaps and bounds, with the caveat that none of this applies to mainstream music. At some point, people started making music that incorporates wildly disparate influences—giallo themes, Ethiopian jazz, musique concrète, distorted AM radio-style soft rock, even things like Chinese opera and liturgical chants. All of these styles could conceivably be found in a single song. This has been going on since at least the 1970s, but it really ramped up in the late 1990s. I’d like to see more of this kind of thing applied to writing, especially if executed by a skillful hand. Your story “M-FUNK VS THA FUTUREGIONS OF INVERSE FUNKATIVITY” provides a perfect example.
As an aside, I keep hearing people in my generation lament the “death of underground music”. I can’t imagine what they could possibly be talking about. There’s more interesting underground music coming out now than there has been at any other point in my lifetime. I think a lot of people fall prey to a “the glory days are over and nobody will ever have experiences as authentic as the ones I had in my youth” mentality. They’re missing out! The glory days are unfolding right before them and all they can do is complain that nothing is happening anymore. One would be advised to avoid commercial radio, but when wasn’t that true?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the films of Guy Maddin, whose influence has found its way into my work. His latest films, The Forbidden Room and The Green Fog are beyond belief.
The sources referred to above that I find myself endlessly coming back to include the works of Henry Corbin, the Neoplatonists as well as modern neoplatonic philosophers such as Algis Uždavinys, the Theurgy of Iamblichus, and Aryeh Kaplan along with the Kabbalists he so eloquently documents (who, like Iamblichus, are more than a little influenced by Neoplatonism). Jake Stratton-Kent has been publishing extremely compelling work over the last decade or so. His Geosophia provides a perfect contrast to the Neoplatonic thread that I draw so much from. These influences show up all over my fiction.
The Greek Magical Papyri, compiled and translated by Hanz Dieter Betz, is as essential a source as one could hope for. Within its pages can be found traces of theurgic approaches that seem to pick up where modern occult orders like the Golden Dawn have left off, though of course they’re much older. Certainly the Rite of the Headless One (PGM V.96—172), which was adapted by S. L. MacGregor Mathers as The Bornless Rite and used extensively by Crowley, provides a way forward for those that find themselves frustrated with the limits of Victorian occult orders. People have argued that this is little more than a rite of exorcism, but the god invoked is general enough to make the ritual more than suitable for a variety of different ends. This rite is merely one among innumerable examples. I could easily spend the rest of my life exploring and developing material from that one source alone. This is true of so many things—not the least of which are the Enochian records of John Dee and Edward Kelley.
I should add, as a final note, that I’ve just finished a novella that takes The Headless One as its central motif. It’s titled “The Acephalic Imperial” and should be released either in late 2019 or early 2020.
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