Moving on: The Company of Fellows is back

avatarReading Festival in 2009 provied one of the most amazing nights of my creative life. Radiohead were headlining after a long absence from the stage. The late summer sun set on an empty stage and as darkness took hold, a white light started to flash slowly, and the park erupted as the band burst into Creep, the song that made them, the song they had once foresworn, and the song no one was expecting them to play.

OK, that’s a rather grandiose metaphor, but I understand why they grew to hate Creep, why they went so far as to write a song (My Iron Lung) about how it was choking the life out of them. I went through a similar phase with my thriller, The Company of Fellows. It’s a book that gave me many if not most of the breaks I’ve had in my writing life. It is the reason why the lovely people at Blackwell’s in Oxford, one of the world’s most famous bookstores, welcomed me with open arms. It is the reason I started to get so many invitations to speak about self-publishing. And it drove me utterly nuts – or, rather, it completely overwhelmed me. I found myself being branded a thriller writer and found it impossible to talk about anything but thrillers. It was like being invited to the best restaurant in the world and told you could only have the bread.

I was desperate to talk about my other work, my literary novels, my budding poetry career, but I was unable to do so. I was only able to talk about The Comapny of Fellows. That annoyed me for several reasons. First, that kind of pigeonholing is why I self-publish. I’m not a thriller writer or a poet, I’m a writer. Second, and the one that made me squirm a bit – it wasn’t my best book, and I resented being judged on work that wasn’t my best (I have since re-written and re-edited and am happy to say I am now very pleased with the book) – there’s a lesson there. Third, I was at that part of my career where I was still brash and insecure – I wanted to be taken seriously. I wasn’t yet ready to say “yeah, I write experimental novels but I also write thrillers – so what?” I got so frustrated I took the book off the shelves. In other words, I flounced. I said “look at me, I’m above *that* kind of writing, I’m an artiste.”

Now, I hope, I am ready. It’s been a long journey. I shouldn’t, in retrospect, have put The Company of Fellows out there when I did. I should have waited till I was less insecure, happier in the kind of writer I am (an eclectic one) and happier with the book (actually, reading through it now, I’m not only rather taken with it, I’m happy that it’s as good as my literary books – just different).

Next time, I’ll write a post that’s about the book itself (though do feel free to buy it now, or reload the edited version if you have a copy – just click the pic) but this post is a mixture of things. It is an apology – to Blackwell’s for being so precious about things when they have been so generous; to writers for being such a flouncer and rather disrespectful to my fellow thriller writers; to readers for deciding to take the ball away so they couldn’t play. I fully expect some tickling of ribs for the volte-face. But I’m really pleased to be in a place where I can say I’m proud of this book. Next time, a little more about it, but meanwhile, please go and take a look 🙂

Stolen Exhibits from the Museum of the History of Hurt

Happy Halloween. With its unctuous miscegenation of darkness and kitsch, what better time for a top 10.Darkness has been creeping closer the past few weeks as I have started to slough off the need to write what other people tell me to write, and start to open teh veins of truth to let the literary blood I know needs letting. It feels, to quote these fine gentlemen like welcoming back an old friend. I look forward to listening to its whispers during November’s Nanowrimo exploits. In the meanwhile, here are my top 10 pieces of art from the dark side, each of them in some way transgressive or transformative, pushing the boundaries of the acceptable, either in absolute or in the sense of presenting us with unthinkable combinations. It’s not a “most terrifying” list. It’s not, as top tens are wont to be, a “look at the obscure stuff I know about” list. It’s just a list of things that have deeply affected me because they have forced me deep into my personal oubliettes in search of hitherto undiscovered truths. First, a reminder that my own contribution to the transgressive gothic of the season, SKIN BOOK, is available to download as a beautiful pdf – just click the pic

below if you dare.

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I want to start with a mention of the brilliant, breathtaking Cody James. Sadly none of her work remains available online, but it will never be forgotten. Anyone who was at the Poetry Cafe the night she read Leviathan to a stunned audience who struggled to compute such a slight, unassuming writer so unflinchingly narrating such a graphic, lyrical story of outsiderdom and self-mutilation will have her words etched into them for life. Her words made the darkness beautiful, and she championed the autonomy of the outsider. For those of us who live there, that is a truly wonderful gift. 10. N.P. by Banana Yoshimoto

np It is hard to choose just one transgressive book. Gabrielle Wittkop’s The Necrophiliac is jostling close to the top of the pile for its exquisite lyricality and tenderness, but this heartbreaking tale of incest and art has the nod, because it is a book I come back to again and again. The elegence and sparseness of its prose removes the author from the scene altogether, leaving us, the readers, alone on stage with the full force of this remarkable tale. 9. Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch

800px-The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_by_Bosch_High_Resolution_2(image from wikimedia)

My mother introduced me to this picture as a child, and I will never tire of it. It must be on everyone’s top ten, but that doesn’t make it any the less remarkable. 8. Henry: Portriat of a Serial Killer The perfect illustration of the notion of the banality of evil. This is the epitome of the dank, washed out, industrialised decaying mindlessness slow creep of depravity (whilst never unsteadying itself by creating, as so many later works did, its own chic). Like N.P. this is a reminder of how powerful art can be when it removes itself from teh artwork. 7. Hurt, Nine Inch Nails Talking of dank, industrialised, urban decay chic. Here because it would be impossible for it not to be. And because you get a two for one because no one can avoid also hearing the heartbreaking fragility of the Johnny Cash version at the same time. 6. Man Bites Dog The ultimate reminder of just how thin the veil is with which we hide our savagery from ourselves. 5. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling kieI read Fear and Trembling as an impressionable 19 year old. I couldn’t cope with the weight of its awful message of the universal responsibility of the individual then. And I’m not sure I can now. And that is its power – it is the perfectly flat mirror we must hold up to ourselves. 4. Hannibal by Thomas Harris hannibalKitsch and cliched, but I make absolutely no apologies for that. I went on Mastermind with the good Doctor as my specialist subject, so here it is. Forget Anthony Hopkins. Both forget and don’t forget the terrifying cameo of Brian Cox. Forget the TV series. Forget even the underground dialogues of Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. This is one of the towering achievements of late twentieth century literature – if Thomas Harris hadn’t previously written poitboiling thrillers, it would be heralded as such. Treat it on its own merit and you will struggle to find a more wrenchingly powerful evocation of the attraction of darkness, and the deep ripples and rifts of nuance and variation to be found within its fabric. 3. Guernica

PicassoGuernica(image from wikipedia)

I wanted to limit myself to one work of modern art. Which is almost impossible. Tracey Emin intyroduced me to the true power of the confessional. Marcus Harvey hit me square between the eyes at an impressionable age wiuth the provocative power of transgression. Francis Bacon has created his own glorious hell on canvas (but as such is maybe too much in the Bosch tradition to warrant a separate space). Rothko introduced me to the beauty of nihilism, Pollock of chaos. But this, surely, is the profoundest word on the ineffable horror of humanity’s absolute, irreducible evil. It is the proof that it is possible for art to reach down to the very lowest circle of hell, and dredge back the terrible creatures from the deep it finds there. and, as such, it is a condemnation of every artist who pulls back from the brink and says “I cannot go there.” 2. The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek jeHonesty is the central quality of every great work of transgression, indeed every masterpiece of the night. Or any difficult, close to the edge subject matter. Honsesty is the one barrier we have to put up to the charge of sensationalism, of milking the market or shocking for the sake of shock. The moment we hit a bum note or pull a punch, we’re sunk. Jelinek’s unflinching account of self-harm and sexual obsession never hits a single false note. She is so meticulous in her quest for truth that she almost invents a new way of writing narrative just to do it justice. 1. In memory Mortality is the final darkness. Its shadow hangs over every one of the works on this list. It behoves, therefore, to dedicate a space to two works which may well have made it anyway but which represent the apogee of the output of two colossuses of the creative world we have lost to the final sleep this year. I make no apologies for the sentimentality and cliche of the choices. But I do at least recognise they are sentimental and cliched. Nonetheless, their impact has been huge. The Wasp Factory was the first time I encountered the truly gothic in literature, the first time I was confronted with the glorious flights of possibility open to the writer when they turn off the self-censor button and let the story tell itself as it wants to be told. And Venus in Furs is, simply, peerless. was

I Like Darkness

You don’t have to be a goth (I’m not a goth, though Queen of Darkness in Camden Lock Market would sit firmly in my top 5 fantasy shopping list, and just a couple of days ago Andie Berryman gave me the best review I’ve ever had for my performance poetry, talking about my “intelligence and generation x gothism”) to have a fascination with life’s dark side – both real and imagined. In the last couple of days I have re-read Thomas Harris’ Hannibal, soaked up the current series of Whitechapel, and delighted in Lucy Worsely’s stunningly good new series A Very British Murder. If you were the proverbial Martian just landed on Earth and you happened to be unlucky enough that your first experience of humanity was my blog (yes OK if that ACTUALLY happened, you’d head straight back to Mars screaming) you might be forgiven for thinking either that I was a very unrepresentative exemplar of this strange new life form or that you’d walked onto the set of Cannibal Holocaust (not that you’d know what that was if you didn’t know about humanity, only now you would because you’d read it on my blog, hit Google, and go Oh yeah – only you wouldn’t know what Google was if that’s even possible).

In reality, of course, neither of these is true. Humanity is, in many ways, a savage, cruel, thoroughly despicable evolutionary mishap. But by and large our predations are not those of the regular grimoire but far more insidious and banal. Hannibal was for many years the fastest selling adult hardback (read fastest selling title not beginning with the words Harry Potter), and if you were to wander into Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors, the only time you would find yourself anything approaching alone is if they’d just cleared it so that Lucy Worsley could film her new series. And the list goes on – ask 90% of people here in Oxford for a museum recommendation for example and they’ll say “Pitt Rivers” adding swiftly “for the shrunken heads.”

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OK, so I know you’re not the proverbial Martian (are you?), but you are probably wondering why I’m delving into these murky waters. Or maybe you’re not – after all, I did write in the preface to (life) razorblades included (download a free copy here or click the photo for the pamphlet) “for all that so much of the material in this book deals with death, this is a book about life” and that book’s cover has been accused of pandering to “suicide chic.” As for some of its contents, well, maybe more of that later. And my thriller The Company of Fellows drew the Goodreads review:

“I want to erase this book from my mind. While parts of it are well-written in a lyrical fashion, this is by far the most depraved and perverse thing I have _ever_ read. Out of thousands and thousands of books–including more than a hundred about serial killers and psychosexual deviants–this book has the single worst and most disgusting things in it I have ever laid eyes on.”

So, you may not be surprised to find me blogging about something other than daisy-filled summer meadows and Cath Kidston table linen. But, whilst idly thinking about life’s darker side and my fascination with it, specifically triggered after this month’s Hammer and Tongue poetry slam by remembering Henry Bowers’ fabulous poem “I Like Darkness”,

I realised that actually the subject fits very much with recent topics on here. Specifically, this is a subject that is actually about how we occupy space. Both physical space (the liminal spaces within cities, the disused and dangerous spaces of industrial neglect, the penumbras and symbolic spaces of forests and heathland) and the conceptual space in which we relate our identity to our perception of the world and others in it. And in the overlap between the two. Which is a good point to pause and share a brilliant Facebook status I read this week from punk commentator Joe Briggs

“That shit about how stand-up comedy is sacred place where you can say anything is so fucking cliched and boring and misses the point so hard, places for exploring taboo topics work coz they are shitty, derided and disrespectable already so nothing you say in them can bring them down, soon as you forget that and start constantly pointing out the freedom and high-minded possibilities of the medium, setting it up like some kind glorious untouchable oasis of thought-experiments and it becomes some straight-up church shit, where it’s beyond criticism cos it’s a holy institution, not that it’s below criticism cos it’s a filthy dirty thing no-one in their right mind would even give a fuck about anyway. The most meaningful shit for me comes from places where meaning is at first absent, when you say “LOOK THIS IS MEANINGFUL. LOOK AT IT! VALIDATE MY ART!” it’s boring and trite, if someone tells you “Your medium is a pile of shit!” you should be like “Yes it is! Fuck you!” not “NO IT IS MOZARTPICASSOGENIUS” Best shit in the world: dumb comics, dumb punk, dumb jokes, dumb action movies, dumb pulp books. All that good dumb shit. That’ll get me through.”

which about perfectly expresses the intersection of darkness, physical space, and conceptual space.

Specifically, I think the central pull of the dark side is part of our desire to position ourselves as outsider. “Outside” is a space to which we are ineluctably drawn and from which we are repulsed in equal measure. It is a space simultaneously of promise and danger, but most of all it is a space wholly different from the one we sense we in fact occupy. Its strange attraction, best likened to the vertiginous feeling of standing on an edge and wanting with all your heart both to cling to the rock and to dive headlong, can be seen in a powerful archetypical hold that stretches back to Cain’s banishment to the land of Nod and stretches forward through endless symbolic accretions to the “perfect” opening of Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael” and beyond.

If an attraction-repulsion to darkness is about positioning ourselves as outsider, it could be argued that it is symptomatic of a societal decadence and comfort which we acknowledge at some level but from which we want to distance ourselves (think of the popularity of guignol and dark cabaret at times of decadence, the prevalence of music hall whimsy at times of distress) – though not entirely, but rather as what one might call torture tourists, dipping into the dark side from a safe distance, toying with outsiderdom as a way into grappling with the problems of being part of a society that is affluent and comfortable but with the buttresses of whose affluence and comfort – sweat shops, crippling carbon emissions, forest-stripping, famine – we are deeply uncomfortable. A fascination, that is, with a particular, widely-agreed avatar of evil may represent a first step towards admitting that the true “banality of evil” is not the everydayness of Denis Nilsen’s face but the millions who will never have the opportunity for such thought experiments because all their spare capacity is exhausted making your T-shirts.

But a fascination with darkness is not just about renting out a conceptual holiday home as “other.” It is also about reaching inside oneself and peeling back layers of learned behaviour and thought to discover who you actually are, to admit your desires, and to acknowledge frailties and failings that have hitherto plagued you from the shadows so as to dispel or, indeed, embrace them and so render them harmless.

There’s a danger of this sounding rather banal – paraphilias and transgression help us to explore the notion of boundaries, we get a glimpse of the things we desire but never dare to do. True, but I don’t think that’s the full story.

In order to see if I was on the wrong track completely or had overlooked the obvious, I did something highly scientific – I took a straw poll on Facebook. The results were fascinating. One respondent pointed out the vicarious attraction of darkness in culture:

“It allows a vicarious dip into darker waters whilst posing no tangible threat. And the darkness makes the beautiful things in life all the brighter and I feel more thankful.”

Another developed that in a very interesting way

“I could never do such things myself and I try to find the disconnect that lead them in one direction while I went in another”

That, surely, is one of the most compelling questions, and one that is central to our struggle for our own identity – what switch do we have that others don’t? This kind of self-scrutiny was at the heart of another response, which focused on the question of nature versus nurture, which is, surely, at root the question “how do I know if this is me?” The same respondent put it succinctly “I don’t think you can understand human nature – ergo yourself – without examining both the ‘light’ and the ‘dark’.”

There really does seem to be a fundamental question of the search for identity, for an understanding of our exterior and interior occupation of space. And it is this that makes me sceptical of the criticism alluded to above – that a creative focus on the dark side glamourises the worst of human behaviour. The perceived danger was expressed very insightfully by another of my respondents, “If there is danger in glamorization, it’s because people will see the gain that can come from dark actions.” That seems to me to be much closer to the truth than the oft-expressed worry that we are somehow pied pipering the world’s youth to a lemming-like mass suicide. We are fundamentally aware how fragile (and fictive) the moral order is, and how easily it could be toppled by the posturings of a Nietzschean ubermensch come Aleister Crowley-esque prankster.

If the primary worry about the danger of darkness is based on the desire to protect the moral web holding society together, then that vertiginous pull into the night can be further seen as part of the desire to be on the outside, to assert oneself as an individual against the formalised and instiutional. It is, in a suitably Laveyan sounding formulation, part of the concretising of the self and creation of a unique space for the self to inhabit.

Yet again we find at the root of the curiosity the question of how we occupy space. And this is what makes me less worried than many about glamourisation (and certainly less worried than I am about constant exposure to greed and selfishness from politicians and the media). Even obsessional interest in the dark side is as much about what we are not as about what we are. It  is about a notional “outside” space that we do not and cannot occupy but in relation to which we are able to define ourselves more fully than we would if we just had access to the “inside.”

Closing the door to the darkness not only prevents full exploration of identity. In some cases, the suturing over of a festering wound can be highly damaging. This is one reason I have never had any worries about putting my very darkest material out there, because it all comes from a confessional place, reaching out to others offering them a touchstone, a point of contact with a space within themselves they may otherwise be unable to articulate. I see it ultimately as creating hope.

I have one on for far too long. I haven’t even started to talk about the specific ways I deal with violence, forbidden desire, and taboo in my writing. I hope, though, I’ve at least started an internal conversation for you, and possibly reassured you that your inclination to the night is less troubling than you may have thought.