Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Beyond Death

Beyond Death

posted Saturday, 6 August 2005

Vampires don't exist, unless we start to believe in them. Until similes become full-blooded metaphors, we shall always live in the negative darkness of a world in proper pain. The world this side of death, where we happen to reside, for our sins, is a living nightmare, but one that is not positively horrific; it's simply a reality without imagination, an everlasting wake without dream, a narrow house of flesh. Recession hereabouts means the receding of spirit, as well as of material things: a place where nightmares are their opposite.
We need to jump-lead the rich seams of gothic synergy in the spirit and to dark-light the way. Already, there are pinpricks of positive nightmare, in our neck of the woods - and we cannot help thinking that less directness and more obliquity will allow us to see better round corners. Eye to eye doesn't show us the soul, but simply its well-head. And in Hell there wait those who were wrongly thrown out of Heaven that sorry day universes ago. Indeed, the road to Heaven is paved with bad intentions.

And what of the vampires? They no longer believe in us.

Horror should be Nightmare disguised as Dream, Blood as Ruby Sea, Hell as Shadow. Not the other ways about. We are the best such disguise. That tells more about us than a thousand close textual surveys of our works. Search out, I say.

I have recently been reading the best sensitive horror going. Undercurrents of spectres and sensuality. Read such writers if you can. But if you want horror really oblique to the point of non-existence (but nonetheless powerful), try claustrophobic novels of timeless family life written earlier this century.

So, with due decorum, I shall hasten on to a quieter London Adventure of Three Impostors. A few weeks ago, we wandered through the ancient London by-ways and visited a Museum: a place beguiled with duplicitous perspectives, bulging with bizarre statues and skeletons, topped with a lop-sided roofscape of skylights, sown with darksome knick-knacks, peopled with peering paintings &c. &c. - and we felt as if we had walked straight into a story, a story limned by dream out of hybrid hells.

We also sat chatting around fountains in peaceful sunlit squares, viewed the dome of St Paul's Cathedral from new shimmering non-Euclidean angles, saw the outside of an inscrutable apartment where a writer we admired did hone his masterpieces of myth and monsters ... and, oh yes, as one of us wrote in a subsequent letter: "the first pub we visited where our conversation was so scintillating I could see it as an episode in a book."

We mustn't forget: even if blood were dream, vampires would sniff at it.

Well, we are not dogs too old to learn new tricks. Exploring, as we do, from time to time, some of the older books in our personal collections, we recently stumbled across some really special ones. Yet, the trove is deeper, the treasure richer, as one delves into even lesser known works which touch on preoccupations of ours regarding ambivalent existences and dimmer-switch identities. The style, too, is a deliciously woven tapestry of clause and sub-clause ... and the aftertaste is sweeter than honey yet black-peppered with other concerns that will stay with us within daylight as well as night - and during those dimnesses between.

Another wonderful reading experience, during moments of the sweetest synchronous serendipity, echoed another browsing of books. By chance, one of them expands upon the tantalising themes of crossed personality and involuted individuality, together with a disturbing treatment of bodily mutilation, plus the vibrant historical immediacy of eastern European venues.

It warmed the heart. (We hadn't eaten hearts for a long time - and even if the hearts present were insufficiently warmed through by the fellow feeling (or by the heated discussion) they were probably more palatable than conger eel with or without onions!)

Vampires would eat their hearts out to have innards.

Well, we have been guilty of brandishing bare words without elaboration, assuming that everybody must know, love and cherish books; but perhaps we are wrong: we are often wrong.

We all live out ghost stories - of sorts. Many are surrealistic, without resort to over-intellectualism. They infect dreams. There are often undercurrents of eroticism and perversion. They are ungraspable, without being opaque. Macabre. Poetic. Yet full of character and dialogue. Frequently a happy mixture of traditional and experimental; a rare dream which is successful in being both accessible and inaccessible at the same time! Frightening. REALLY SCARY. All this is our opinion. And we are often wrong.

About to draw in my feelers. Armed with a stake, I penetrated a vampire the other day on my kitchen floor, without first suspending my belief. Much messier than fiction. Even messier than dreams.

I am half Welsh, my father having spent his boyhood in his birthplace of Llanelli, South Wales, before being dragooned to fight in the War of the Worlds in 1941 - eventually ending up stationed on the English east coast in Walton-on-Naze, Essex, where he met my mother...

On a visit to Llanelli recently, whilst taking my father on a nostalgic trip back to his roots, I could easily imagine the surly inhabitants possessing brothership with Deep Ones - and the deserted part of Llanelli docks being their Lurkhole. And I think immanent synchronicity and dark serendipity affect lovers of the dark side more than most. Just as an example, whilst on that short visit to Llanelli, Dad scoured the local telephone directory in what he thought was a hopeless task to track down one of his old friends with whom he had gone diving at Llanelli docks as a boy: someone he had not seen or heard of for over forty years - and, lo, that very friend was living directly opposite the guest house where Dad and I were staying, miles from the friend's previously known abode! This chap turned out to be Chief Mason in Llanelli with more resemblance to one of the Deep Ones than it was polite to notice.

The strange forces of serendipity and coincidence ever seem to be at work, especially when amid stories in the horror mode. Either that or there is some wondrous mantra (or muse?) steering our minds towards those priceless moments of creativity and gestalt. Astrology, one such mandala, is not concerned with cause and effect; it is an empirical study of human behaviour and of life-force trends as paralleled by the positions of all the planets in the Zodiac at the precise moment and place of birth. The concept of Synchronicity (i.e As Above, So Below) could not be more logical. If our Universe and all its ingredients failed to move in cogwheel patterns with perfectly overlapping ripples, that would surely be more ridiculous than if they did move in that way. So why is belief in Astrology deemed ridiculous when a disbelief in it would be more ridiculous? Those people who ridicule Astrology - who decry this interpretative study of synchronicity empirically derived from (a) scientifically calculated patterns of the universe and (b) simultaneous human actions - will never know whether it works, because the Astrological influences in their own horoscopes may well demonstrate that very ignorance which they were born to suffer: a vicious circle of disbelief.

The movement of all bodies, Heavenly or otherwise, is surely a refined, interactive process, having taken merely a single eternity of preparation to produce our infinitely complex mortal life. Only those who believe will in turn be believed, because Faith is a two-way conduit. As Above, so Below.

If we are vampires, the stars are our stake-outs. As Below, so Above.

Indeed, there once existed a wonderful writer for Horror/Ghost story lovers as well as for people who love huge panoramic, picaresque, idiosyncratic tours-de-force of social history ... his books being full of Victorian fogs, street-sweepers, costermongers, plug-ugly villains, fresh-faced maidens, well-meaning heroes, weird characters with even weirder names, laughter, pain, farce, surrealism (yes, a genuine surrealism that predates the twentieth century by a good number of years!) and, above all, scenes that can horrify and gently haunt you. The style of language takes us along winding paths within an overgrown maze of meaning and resonance, whereby digressions become main narrative threads - and vice versa - until we reach an understanding of something important to life, something which is not at all obvious unless we apply a retrospective ear to a whole novel's wondrous dream-like or nightmarish or side-splitting backwash of sound.

In many ways, these novels remind me of probably the most mysterious phenomenon within the universe known to man, yes, my own greatest passion: music.

With due respect - and I may be wrong here since I'm often wrong - I imagine many of you enjoy popular rock music in its various forms ... which is fine, carrying, as such music often does, mind-stretching horror images, eeriness, nightmare, alternative religiosity (even quiet contemplation): especially when you're in the right frame of mind to bring ordinary music-listening towards your spiritual antennae.

Well, so far so good. But if you want more, if you want something different, why don't you try modern orchestral 'serious' music? I know a number of people denigrate what they call avant garde music - saying it's a load of pretentious noise. Well, yes, some of it is. You're right. But there are some composers whose music I cannot live without. The secret, for me, is to listen to such pieces time and time again until they settle down, where the unpredictable sounds and apparently tuneless passages begin to match the rhythms of your self-induced waking dreams.

There was one piece of music that originally stirred me into the outlands of taste, turning me from the more 'normal' ways of my beloved parents who only ever listened to melodic music and watched television. As ever, I will not name names.

Vampires play the flute.

I must admit that an ambition of mine is to blur the distinction between so-called literature as praised by artsy-fartsies and our own beloved horror genre. There is someone who, to my mind, embodies this ideal better than anyone. His running themes are murders, historic London, inhumanity, mysteries, literary tricks ... with such dark undercurrents one can actually sense the incubi of his demons close by, penetrating even the stones of modern London as one wanders, at random, its streets.

The first novel of his I read was one where he entwines past and present, flaying bare the seed-beds of arcane evil that marinate the very stones and statues and walls. A detective story that will haunt and horrify you forever. Another discernible theme is the ambivalence of gender. Like the phenomenon of Spontaneous Combustion, androgynous ambiguity and sexual sleight of hand are, I feel, untapped sources of material for fiction of horror and of psychological terror - although some of us subtly and perhaps unknowingly demonstrated them in some stories.

In many ways, when children didn't spend all their time glued to computer screens and had a good grounding in stylistic English, they would certainly have enjoyed these explorations into occult and mystic realms of fear, since some stories, indeed, feature children as their protagonists. Child-like grown-ups, I guess, are the only possible candidates for wonderment these days, because most of our real children have been 'spoilt'. And those grown-ups among us who read and write in the horror genre I've often thought are child-like, in this positive sense. They have not been jaded by the act of growing-too-old-too-quickly, they do not zombie round with cowed bleary eyes and a spiritless soul. Even madness is better than mindlessness.

I have a great faith that Mankind's creativity (particularly the creativity of literature and music) can be our only soul-mate in this otherwise material universe. Other people are merely passing strangers who you befriend or, even, love, but, through their very mortality, they will depart your territory, inevitably leaving you quite alone one day. And I feel that literature and music, wherein you can drift, or even fly, supplies what you are missing when the world's crazy religions are shown up for what they are: just things that make people cruel to each other.

Mankind can create its own bespoke world - and horror fiction is a very efficient tool for expanding the mind beyond the matter that constricts it. I have always condemned mind drugs that are administered to the body from outside it. I have never taken such drugs (except, I admit, for my occasional weakness for drinking alcohol!) and I never shall. Drugs come from within.

There can be no goodness without its balance of bad. Perhaps Mankind is fundamentally ill-created, perhaps people have evil inbuilt at birth, and, by recognising those facts, by simply writing about the bad-the-ugly-and-the-frightening, this act of honesty alchemically refines the "soul". Perhaps a vampire is only evil because of the human vehicle it drives.

Sometimes I wonder - does horror need to be horrific?

To be truly horrific, the images and conceits that are embedded in a plot do have to stick in the mind - and only a craftsmanship with words is able to carve out the haunting quality that is necessary whether the horror be physical, psychological, fanciful or supernatural.

Some stories are essentially literature in its purest form - wonderfully rumbustious, humorous, word-magical fantasies, liberally peppered with honest-to-goodness horror - involving the fabulous traditions of surrealism, fairy stories and piquant wit. They strike me of the feeling one would have upon entering a treasure trove of a bookshop and discovering for the first time works that had been written in some ancient future, a future impossible to believe ever possessing the antecedence of a present let alone of a past. There is one book that I had dreamed of reading but never thought I'd be so lucky ever to do so in real life.

Even if you have a complete blood change, your mind will never forget...

As I sit here - within my chalet bungalow close to the North Sea where recently, due to a storm, many pleasure beach-huts were smashed to smithereens or even entirely snatched away - I wonder what defines an island. The world is an island, I suppose. I am one, too. The horror art (i.e. the words and pictures we manufacture to depict the dark side of humanity) is perhaps a personal sea against which our mental and physical coast-defences will eventually crumble. But before this happens, we should seek out the sandbags.

The only activity we are are possibly good at is this art of horror. And we want to be famous, remembered after we are dead, rumours of our existence to be blessed with at least the life-span of this island planet. But to be remembered as being sick! No, never! But that's what will happen, if we don't beware. Our families and friends will remember us as people who got carried away by our art, subsumed by our own insular minds. And if we couldn't control ourselves, what sort of people were we?

Unless, of course, we can justify the art of horror itself.

Many ordinary people love horror. Simply that. Everybody is cruel at heart. Why not give them what they want? Lay the horror on as thickly as possible. But people like a lot of things that are not good for them. This argument of personal responsibility is an unending one. If we could resolve it here, we would deserve to be famous. Or is Horror actually good for people? A purge. A catharsis. People have evil built into the fabric of their souls at birth. And what the horror art does is dilute that real horror with its imaginary equivalent. And imaginary horror, surely, is preferable to any other kind. On the other hand, perhaps we are intrinsically evil, inexcusably warping people's imaginations. Our corrupt soul needs an artistic outlet for its own self-satisfaction. But why also submit such art for others to publish? We want to provoke. We have always provoked people since being kids, haven't we? Mainly in minor ways. Ways that we thought would not harm them. But perhaps we are more harmful than we ever expected. We must never admit that, though. Even if it's true.

Sticks and stones may hurt our bones, but names will never hurt us. What harm can there be in simple words or drawings on a page? But we want our art to get under the skin. Be more than just art. Perhaps, if we are truly honest, we want to bite home. Only nasty medicine can cure, they say. But there's something we are missing. An imponderable that we cannot even set down on the page properly, let alone successfully address. Monsters can live in our nightmares and by describing them, hopefully we circumscribe them. By writing, I circumscribe myself. I fetter myself from creating the only horror that will harm you as well as me: me.

Yet, there is much humour in our art. Sick humour, perhaps. But it's meant to make people laugh. Laughter and horror are often bed-fellows. Audiences often burst out into chortling at the most frightening bits of films. Mischief and the poking of fun are part and parcel of our attitude. Seriousness could only lead to unwelcome admissions. Perhaps, we are the appointed providers of horror. Without bad, there couldn't be an equal measure of good. Good is only good when compared with bad. We are thus do-goooders. But this absurdity means we have run out of further thoughts. Leaving us with Nothing. Bliss. Nirvana. We hope that we are forgiven by our loved ones - especially when our final artist's block comes ... or after the abandon-edit button is pushed before anything is saved. Meanwhile, the sea is in an ugly mood again, tonight. Even the fish have fangs and flop ashore, bleating for breath. And horror surrounds me with wave upon wave of self-doubt. But, as some philosopher once said, doubt is strength.

By the way, there is a misprint later. For blood, please read beer.

Each time I try to enter the non-fiction mode, ideas for stories seem to take over and I feel myself slipping away into my usual sort of convoluted dream or cruel conceit. And this set me to thinking. It strikes me that fiction represents a fusion of real life and imagination, one feeding off the other. How otherwise can one appreciate the frisson of fear or the gulp of revulsion without believing it is really happening? Suspension of belief is, I think, an expression often employed. But it is more than this. Yet would I be pretentious enough to maintain that reality is fiction and vice versa? Well, maybe.

It is much more complex than simple suspension of belief (or even disbelief). Horror fiction, at its best, enters our individual territories and becomes part and parcel of a revolving realm with Death at its core: and, in this realm, all the flotsam and jetsam of life (the richest life being generated by the imagination as well as by the day-to-day interaction of our minds and bodies) spin round, some colliding only to ricochet off, others sticking together, some being swallowed whole or bit by bit. Eventually, the various items are sucked into the core where they are minced up or refined into streams of sense (or apparent sense or, even, nonsense) which are then released from that realm into other revolving realms which create new collisions, fusions and spin-offs. This is using Death as a positive tool, as it surely is. Without Death, we'd be nothing.

Furthermore, Horror fiction shares a bed with surrealism and humour as well as with the more usual ingredients of grim acts, monstrous creatures and ghostly visitations. Literature, indeed, uses all kinds of devices, tropes, figures of speech, call them what you will, to make the welding of reality and unreality as seamless as possible. But why make something seamless, when there are no seams in the first place? It only takes a few lateral thoughts or, as I have proposed here, spinning ones. Horror fiction can accomplish this feat with some degree of logic, because the realms actually created by it are indeed real - and perhaps that is because there is nothing more horrific than being real in reality as we know it. I am only in it for the blood.

I don’t know whether any of you have ever been to Docklands, a reclaimed area in the East End of London, where my Grandfather travailed on the cranes before the Second World War - but, when I arrived on the amazing Docklands Light Railway, amid the tall behemoth constructions that still pay obeisance to Thatcherite Britain, I really felt myself to be in an Alternate World. From my hotel bedroom, I could see the same railway-on-stilts arriving through the corridors of a Wellsian Metropolis on the other side of an in-city waterscape ... and, yes, despite myself, I was awestruck... exhilirated, even.

Life is a dark dockless ocean of meaning and sound, something that will haunt our dreams forever (even beyond death) as well as make us believe that our beloved horror genre will eventually encompass all art and literature. But, surely, there is more to life than mere monsters and vampires.

(first published 'Roadworks' 1999)

comments (1)

1. Paul Dracon left...
Saturday, 6 August 2005 3:02 pm
"Even madness is better than mindlessness."

Yes-- MUCH better.

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