Sublime Terror & Genre Divides
A Conversation between Adrian Van Young & Matthew Cheney
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Adrian Van Young is the author of the collection The Man Who Noticed Everything (Black Lawrence Press, 2013) and the novel Shadows in Summerland (ChiZine Publications, 2016) as well as The Murder Chronicles: A New Orleans Murder Mystery, an interactive, serialized mystery novella for The-Line-Up.com. Matthew Cheney is the author of the collection Blood: Stories (Black Lawrence Press, 2013) and co-editor (with Eric Schaller) of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. Van Young and Cheney, as it would happen, are also admirers of each other’s work and agreed to have a conversation by email in between bouts of winding down their teaching careers for the summer, and reading each other’s most recent books. They ended up covering a wide range of topics including but not limited to: emotional catharsis through sublime terror, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Witch, inhabiting aesthetic utopias, resisting emotion by way of creating it, loudly eating nachos while watching Michael Haneke, the so-called “genre divide,” and who they’ve been reading, among so much more.
Adrian Van Young: One thing I’m struck by and appreciate about your collection Blood is its overall bleakness. From the title story, to “The Lake,” to “How Far to Englishman’s Bay,” these stories have a very close relationship with doom, annihilation, the unreachable prospect of solace. God help me, I love that about them!
For me, there’s always been a beautiful sublimity about a narrative that channels irretrievably toward hopelessness.
For me, there’s always been a beautiful sublimity about a narrative that channels irretrievably toward hopelessness. There’s almost something hopeful in it — like, by utterly not acknowledging the possibility of hope you make room for it in this strange, indirect way. That said, I also felt that the bleakness of these stories was inextricable from their humor and their playfulness as narratives. These are funny stories — sometimes just by virtue of their squirm-inducing extremity. Do you see your fiction the same way I see it? What do you mean to evoke by the interpenetration of wholesale bleakness and wry humor?
Matthew Cheney: I recently said somewhere that my idea of a feel-good movie is Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This is true. I always feel better about life, the universe, and everything after watching the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I laugh during some of the most gruesome scenes. I feel a sense of great joy and release and catharsis — a sense of the sublime — at the end of the film, with Sally escaping and Leatherface doing his chainsaw dance. I’m a pacifist who gets light-headed at the sight of blood in real life, and yet somehow within the art form of this violent, gory movie — within the patterns of image and sound it creates — I find an aesthetic utopia, a certain bliss. I don’t have an explanation for that, but it probably explains the tone of a lot of the fiction I write, since one of the reasons I write is to try to inhabit aesthetic utopias. I want to feel the pleasure of the text, and for me a lot of that pleasure comes from a confrontation with things that are bleak and horrible.
Humor is a part of that, sometimes to relieve despair, sometimes just because I can’t resist a bit of laughter on the gallows (and we’re all on the gallows). The playwright Christopher Durang was a huge influence on me when I was a teenager. His play The Marriage of Bette and Boo is one of the great works of American art. It’s the kind of play that lots of places won’t produce because the humor is just coruscating — there are dead babies dropped on the stage, for instance. It’s as bleak as Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but much more hilarious. It’s the hilarity of, “Ohmygawd, I can’t believe I’m laughing about this,” which is, for me, the best kind of laughing, a laughing not of trivializing laughter so much as a laughter that could at any moment turn to uncontrollable tears.
You’re not exactly the cheeriest writer on the planet, yourself, Adrian — Hallmark probably isn’t flooding you with requests to turn your stories into greeting cards or after-school specials. What’s the attraction for you of, let’s say, the dark materials?
AVY: Actually, Hallmark has been flooding my inbox with requests to option my story ‘The Skin Thing’ for a Passover card they’re doing. On one side it’s going to say, ‘Why give up your first-born to the 20-foot tall skin monster?’ and then on the other, ‘It’s for the good of the colony.’ Really, though, folks, what you said about that “sense of great joy and release and purgation — a sense of the sublime” at the end of Texas Chainsaw Massacre — a movie I, too, love — reminds me of something Ben Marcus said in an interview that totally resonates with me on that level, and I’ll quote it here:
“In the end I am uplifted, profoundly so, by the bleakest, despairing work. It’s a great unburdening to read work of this sort. I do not want to be asked to pretend that everything is all right, that people are fundamentally happy, that life is perfectly fine, and that it is remotely ok that we are going to die, and soon, only to disappear into oblivion. I feel a kind of ridiculous joy when writing reveals the world, the way it feels to be in the world. That’s what hope is, a refusal to look away.”
I love that, and I feel like in many ways it gets at the heart of what we both intend by the despair in our fiction. It’s certainly all over my first collection of stories (The Man Who Noticed Everything) and shows up more intensely even in the collection I just finished (Hello My Midnight Self, It’s Me). On some level, as you say, it’s inexplicable, it’s just an aesthetic preference, but then on another I do think it is a kind of truth-telling that certain writers recognize intrinsically and then become addicted to explicating. I get that same sense when I’m watching the films of Michael Haneke, for instance — I remember seeing a matinee of The White Ribbon when I lived in Boston, and loudly eating theater nachos all throughout it, and suddenly feeling self-conscious that I was so cavalierly reveling in its nihilism but then thinking to myself, ‘Shit, man. This is who I am.’ Or when I’m listening to Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, or when I’m reading the fiction of Thomas Bernhard, Shirley Jackson, Lovecraft, Laird Barron, Livia Llewellyn or Flannery O’Connor — most particularly Flannery O’Connor.
I’m curious about what you said about “[inhabiting] aesthetic utopias” in your work. Blood is just such a wide-ranging collection in terms of genre, form, diction, etc. So, although one person’s utopia can be another person’s dystopia, so on and so forth, utopia is a metaphor to me that suggests some sense of aesthetic unity or coherence, which isn’t necessarily a quality at the forefront of your writing — in a good way. I’m wondering: apart from that sublime despair we’ve just discussed, what defines your aesthetic utopia? Can there be more than one operating within the space of the same narrative or collection of narratives?
MC: Yes, I think a particular writer’s personal commitments to form and feeling can unite seemingly disparate materials. Someone who writes from feelings and ideas that are important to them will have a unity in their work even if they’re writing for very different audiences and in very different styles. Similarly, too, readers. We could create Venn diagrams of readerly attachments. For instance, a person who is open to most or all of the writers and artists you mention is somebody whose aesthetic universe I understand and am at least in sympathy with — we aren’t the same person, our tastes aren’t perfectly identical, but we’re in the same world, we speak mutually comprehensible languages, even if our accents differ here and there. People who only get Bernhard, or only get Barron are more inscrutable to me than people who are psychologically and aesthetically attracted to both.
Utopia is what we strive for and never achieve, it’s the potential within the words that we keep seeking and seeking.
What I meant by the use of the word “utopia” is the pleasure of working within the pattern-world of the text. Utopia is what we strive for and never achieve, it’s the potential within the words that we keep seeking and seeking. That potential is intellectual and affectual: I want to think and feel in certain ways while writing. Indeed, I need to feel and think in certain ways or the story will seem dead to me and I probably won’t continue working on it (I start five stories for every one I finish). Particular moves, tones, images, and problems lead me toward the pleasure of the text, bring me closer, while I write, to the impossible utopia I hope for before setting a word onto paper.
Here’s a clear example from the book. “A Map of the Everywhere” is a story I wrote for the first Interfictions anthology, an anthology of stories that live in between the borders of genres and styles. The first draft of that story began as an exercise for myself: I had a crazy sentence I’d written in a notebook (“Alfred worked in the sewer fields because all the other jobs he’d held had disappointed him.”) and I gave myself the challenge of somehow messing up expectations with each new sentence — very deliberately bending, sentence by sentence, whatever direction I felt I was going in. That draft gave me the skeleton of the story. It was surreal and almost completely nonsensical. What subsequent drafts produced was more sense, because now I needed to find the connections between all the 180-degree turns I’d made. This could have felt like drudgery, but it was some of the most fun I’ve ever had writing a story, even though it was incredibly difficult. However, that’s just the technical part, and the technical part doesn’t really explain why this story is what it is. It’s among the most hopeful, even joyous stories I’ve written, and I think part of that is that it was written at a very difficult moment of life, one when I was depressed and despairing, and so the story I needed to write was not one that expressed that despair and depression but rather pushed against it. Sometimes what I need is not to push against a mood (whether foul or fair) but to work through it, to heighten it and to make something from it; in this case, though, what I needed was some sort of glimmer of happiness, and that’s what the story provided me as I wrote it. I wouldn’t have finished writing it otherwise.
Perhaps some of this explains why I haven’t succeeded at writing a novel worth reading (some years ago I finished a complete draft of a novel; I hope no-one ever sees it, because it’s soporific drivel, but at least it’s a completed draft). I hate the feeling of writing being dead on the page. I struggle to pull myself through it when both thought and feeling seem distant. It’s not so much a matter of fortitude as faith: I lose faith in my ability to invest the words with meaning. With a story, I just toss it aside into a folder called “Failed Attempts”, thinking perhaps one day I’ll go back to it (I never do). My primary style of revision is to start over from scratch. With a novel, though … what do you do? With Shadows in Summerland, how did you know that what you were writing was the thing that would sustain you: the form, the vision?
AVY: “…the impossible utopia I hope for before setting a word onto paper…” That’s great. I may even crib that concept for one of my CW classes some time. You know, it’s funny, but I think I was thinking of utopia from this almost exclusively ideological standpoint rather than the individualized artistic utopia you speak of — like, I thought you were going to bust loose with some Oscar-Wildean treatise or something (Alas!). That’s as clear as indicator as any to me that I’ve been immersed in fringe 19th-century social and religious movements for far too long.
Which brings us around to Spiritualism and the question you asked about my novel, Shadows in Summerland. I will say that I both knew and was utterly unsure of the thing that would sustain me while writing the novel. Which is to say: I knew the genre expectations I wanted to avail myself of (a Gothic historical novel with strong elements of crime and horror). I knew the form I wanted the novel to take (5 different first-person POV’s that would each stand in for a different mainstay of the 19th-century American Spiritualist movement, creating this kaleidoscopic and/or panoramic effect). And I knew that I wanted the narrative to hew roughly to the life of one of the main characters, William H. Mumler, the “father” of spirit photography.
It’s interesting you mention revision as being crucial in writing a novel, because one thing I didn’t know is how I would get all of these elements to cohere into an actual narrative, a process that very much took place in revision. Like you, when I’m writing a short story I tend to revise wholesale several times from the ground up, sometimes rewriting them 3–4 times, each time more fluently, until I feel I’ve got it right. With Shadows in Summerland, I more or less kept the structure I happened upon in my first draft, blowing the novel up to this outlandish and unwieldy size in the second draft with lots of baroque language and superfluous subplots, then shrinking it down by half in the third (I cut more than 100,000 words). After that the fourth and fifth drafts, each endeavored over a couple of months, were mostly rearranging, fine-tuning, and cutting — strength-testing, if you will.
But I had never written or revised a novel all the way through before! I had no idea how fucking hard it was! That said, I’m happy with the way it turned out and can honestly say what pulled me through was a combination of love for the characters and their voices (one in particular, Fanny Conant, my trance-speaker darling), and not wanting to feel embarrassed about laboring at this project for nearly a decade and having nothing to show for it. A third motivator that existed outside my hermetic universe of writing the novel itself was my wife, Darcy, who is tirelessly supportive of me in everything and who is and always will be my first reader. And — not to be cheesy — but I think I just really wanted her to read it.
Since we’ve organically arrived at this sentimental moment, I’d wanted to ask you about feeling in your stories. Having now read most of your book and hearing you talk about your process in writing “A Map of the Everywhere,” it seems like you often write first from a place of emotion, which isn’t uncommon in fiction, per se. And yet I’ve been intrigued by the extent to which you’re able to translate that emotion, powerfully, onto the page. “The Lake” made me cry! Fiction rarely makes me do that (I must’ve had something in my eye), and I got similar feels after reading the excellent title story, “Blood.” How do you go about creating emotional effect in your stories? Does it flow out of a sense of connection you share with the characters? Is there some formula or equation you use and if so can I copy it and use it in my own lab experiments in the future?
MC: Fiction’s ability to evoke emotion fascinates me, because it is, indeed, so mysterious. Before tackling that mystery, though, let me just note one more thing about my use of the word aesthetic throughout here, since it may not actually be the most precise word for what I’m trying to talk about.
While what I was describing was the personal feeling of writing within textual patterns that are appealing and energizing, I am obsessed with the place of aesthetics in literary history, especially from the late 19th century on. Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist” is a piece I find endlessly compelling, for instance. I’ve long been interested in politics, too, so I’m always thinking about the relationship of politics to art, always despairing of it, always wondering if there is some way to square the circle of political art without falling into the trap of agit-prop. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Steven Shaviro’s ideas about the relationship between aesthetics and neoliberalism, which you can see in his essay “Accelerationist Aesthetics” and more fully in his book No Speed Limit (the last chapter of which makes connections to Wilde, Marx, and Keynes; queer self-fashioning; glam rock; late Foucault; etc. It’s magnificent.) His argument isn’t one I can summarize accurately in a short space, and I’m not even certain I fully understand it, but I will say that what I pull from it for my own use is a sense of aesthetics as a way to find moments of refuge from neoliberalism’s insistence on efficiency, austerity, and quantification. I look to this sort of theoretical and analytical writing to help me think through techniques to try out in my fiction, ways to stay fresh and to keep challenging myself not to fall into ruts.
It’s much more interesting to watch someone on stage trying their damnedest not to cry than it is to watch somebody crying.
Speaking of techniques, there is actually a formula of sorts that I use when working through emotional material in my own writing. It’s something I learned back when I was doing more theatre than I do these days. Good advice to actors who have to do an emotional scene is not to play the emotion, but to play resisting the emotion. It’s much more interesting to watch someone on stage trying their damnedest not to cry than it is to watch somebody crying. Also, it has more of an effect on the audience, because it’s a more complicated action. Catharsis is not for the actor, but for the audience.
Thus, as a writer I’m trying to create situations where my characters will cry and scream and wail, but then as the person controlling the tone of how that crying, screaming, and wailing is represented, I try to keep the characters from blubbering all over the page. My models for this are Jean Rhys and Paul Bowles. Whenever I feel like I’m pushing the prose too much, trying to force an emotional effect, I read a few pages of Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight or one of Bowles’s short stories. These are works that I find almost overwhelming in their emotional content, but also so incredibly, perfectly, scintillatingly restrained that I sit in awe of them, and that awe shames me to try to go back to my own work and keep it from exploding with sentimental goo.
I’m going to return now to something you said about Shadows in Summerland — the structure. You’ve got Mumler’s life as a kind of overarching structure to hold lots of stuff together, and then you’ve got the different points of view. You were coming to this as somebody well-experienced as a short story writer, so did you approach the different POVs as their own sorts of stories? How did you find the shape and work through it?
AVY: I like what you say about the act of resisting emotion rather than playing into emotion as being, ultimately, the catalyst of emotion in the outside party, i.e. the reader. That rings very true to me.
…they always have to be striving toward something, even if it’s clear early on that they’re never going to achieve it.
I once had a teacher in grad school — the awesome Rebecca Curtis — who told me something so simple and seemingly commonsense, and yet so vital when it comes to eliciting empathy for a character that it’s never left me, and I pass it on to all my students as though it were mine. Hell, sometimes even to strangers on the street! Which is that it’s difficult for a reader to feel sorry, or feel anything for a character that already feels sorry or too much for themselves. In other words, they always have to be striving toward something, even if it’s clear early on that they’re never going to achieve it. Perhaps, by your definition, striving not to feel something, even though those feelings are going to break through eventually.
Regarding the multiple-POV structure of Shadows in Summerland, I actually don’t think I conceived of the chapters as discrete narratives of any kind at the time I was writing it. I’d meant the entire narrative to have one continuity with a lot of simultaneous action and perception — a series of disparate strands that I would, then, braid together into this cable that would have a different warp & weft when seen from different angles. Afterward, though, when I’d whittled the novel down to what I believe is its essence, I did begin to recognize a kind of discreteness, or vignette-quality to the POV-chapters that I don’t think I’d intended in the offing. Indeed, a reviewer recently commented on this and I was taken aback by it initially, then gratified to find that it was true. I am sure that my experience as a short story writer played into this, but then again, my “short” stories tend to be quite long (25–50 pages on the average), many of the POV-chapters in the novel are practically elliptical by comparison, so if anything the novel represents a large-scale, multi-faceted compression of my short story technique.
At first when I was writing the novel, I wrote the whole thing through more or less chronologically, even though I knew I wanted the chronology to be scrambled in the final manifestation, which it is. Certain events I knew I wanted to happen in the novel were tethered to certain characters’ POVs, and yet still other events tethered to multiple characters’ POVs when I wanted them to perceive things simultaneously. The idea, I think, was to keep the plot moving along without disappointing the reader too much every time there was a character switch — that vertiginous feeling you sometimes get while reading a novel when the focus shifts from something you’re enraptured by to something you’re only vaguely interested in. I do think I’ve achieved that briskness of plotting that I intended by keeping the chapters quite short. (Though of course that remains to be seen — you haven’t read it yet!) The scrambling of chronology presented a challenge and required lots of different rotating configurations over the various drafts. I had one early reader, suffering from temporal motion sickness, who offered the solution: add dates! It’s a goddamn historical novel, add dates! I did that.
I shudder to even bring this up, because I’m so tired of talking about the “genre divide” and the “genre wars,” but I will say that you’re someone who straddles literary fiction and genre fiction — terms I see as instructive rather than pejorative from either side — in this very informed and un-self-conscious way. Who are some writers in a vein similar to yourself whose work you’re excited about? Anything particular of theirs we should check out post-haste?
And, while we’re talking about works of high genre, and since you mentioned your genesis from a tribe of “stoic New Englanders,” I’m dying to know what you thought of The Witch? Did it live up to the hype for you?
MC: It’s interesting to hear about your sense of Shadows in Summerland from while you were writing it — I would have thought that the vignette-like structure was planned from the get-go, because it not only works well to keep the plot moving, but it also creates a certain photographic effect, making the novel like a particularly weird and evocative scrapbook, which of course fits with the subject matter and plot.
I love the advice you’ve grabbed from Rebecca Curtis — it completely echoes my own ideas. I was thinking of this last night as I was watching the Dardennes brothers’ movie The Kid with a Bike for the third or fourth time. I’m captivated by filmmakers like Haneke, whom you mention above, and the Dardennes because of how they shape emotion and questions of morality in their work. I don’t know if the effect is particular to cinema or if it can be done in prose, too. (Maybe Joy Williams sometimes.) There’s a distance, a slowness to such films that for plenty of viewers, I’m sure, is just boring, but if you get on its wavelength, it’s almost unbearably tense. In many ways, the tension and power is because of what is left out — in The Kid with a Bike, we never know why Samantha is interested in the kid of the title, Cyril, who has been abandoned into foster care by his father. Why does she give him a home, why does she put up with him? A Hollywood version of the movie would give her a whole backstory, probably with a lost child or dead brother or something. But not the Dardennes. This ambiguity is suspenseful, almost unbearable, because not knowing why she is generous to Cyril, we don’t know what might make her stop being generous to him, we don’t know the limits, and he keeps testing those limits. It works, and is powerful and thought-provoking, because it leaves out so much that a more conventional film would insist was essential.
Jean-Pierre Dardennes said once, “In order to film what you want to show of a face or a body, you first have to decide what you want to hide,” and I think that’s great advice to any artist.
I used to care about the “genre divide” for the simple reason that I was trying to find places to publish my stories, which inevitably genre editors thought were “too literary” and lit journal editors thought were “too genre”, and so I needed to have some knowledge of how to thread that needle if I ever wanted to get published. I feel like things have changed a lot from when I first started publishing, and to be honest I don’t feel like most of what I write at this point has a home in the contemporary genre world, because the contemporary lit world is much more open than it has been in a while to stuff that’s more than domestic social realism. Though I have been for my whole life a reader of genre fiction of one sort of another, as a writer my commitments have been more in synch with the weirder side of the lit world. (I use the terms “genre” and “lit” to describe what my friends in the field of composition and rhetoric call “discourse communities”; these are not hard-and-fast separations between texts themselves, but rather differences in how texts get produced, distributed, read, and talked about.) The generation of writers, editors, and workshop teachers that clung mightily to the idea that Raymond Carver was the apex of all literature is withering, retiring, dying. I think even they got tired of reading sensitive, minimalist stories about adulterous academics.
It’s hard to say which writers write like yourself. (Any of us might be tempted to lie arrogantly and scream: “Nobody! I am entirely unique!”) A friend of mine recently told me my “genre” is Conjunctions, and that seems accurate to me (indeed, they’ve published three of my stories, which is more than anybody else). I draw on Kafka a lot. I revere Chekhov, but I’m not sure I write like him; similarly, I draw endlessly from Virginia Woolf, but I’m quite a different writer. (Which is not to suggest I’m anywhere near their league. To write well, though, we need to aim for the best, and these are the writers I think of as the best in doing what I aspire to do with language, form, and feeling.) Certain playwrights: Büchner, Beckett, Christopher Durang, Mac Wellman, David Greenspan, the early Suzan-Lori Parks, Sarah Ruhl. I adore the often bizarre prose of Deleuze & Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus, books that have affected my more recent work, even though, or perhaps because, I hardly understand them. I go back to Gertrude Stein again and again, especially The Making of Americans, Lectures in America, and How to Write. You’ll find traces through my stories of Michel Foucault, particularly later (c. 1975–1982) Foucault, and Roland Barthes, whose A Lover’s Discourse and self-titled quasi-autobiography, Roland Barthes, I especially cherish. J.M. Coetzee in a thousand ways. And Guy Davenport. And Robert Aickman. And and and…
I’ve spent a decade intensively studying the work of Samuel Delany, and while I’m not conscious of any noticeable influence, I’m sure he’s floating in between my lines. I’ve learned a lot from Kelly Link, Jeffrey Ford, Mary Rickert, and Richard Bowes about what short fiction can do. Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation fascinates me in what it leaves out, in how much it allows to be ambiguous, as does the Southern Reach trilogy as a whole, which I think is one of the great recent works to explore epistemology and language, though I expect most people value those books for other qualities. (Similarly, I think I was eternally affected by Jeff’s earlier novel Shriek: An Afterword and the novellas “Dradin, In Love” and “The Transformation of Martin Lake” in City of Saints and Madmen. Very different, very haunting, very brave works.) Poets, too, far too many to mention — Paul Celan and Adrienne Rich especially, though in ways likely invisible in what I’ve written.
I feel like I should point to more recent writers, the exciting upstarts and humbling wunderkinder, but I’m a terrible person to ask about new fiction these days because Ph.D. work has kept me from reading much of anything new. (If you want recommendations from the 1920s and 1930s, I’m your guy — Claude McKay! Elizabeth Bowen! Winifred Holtby! Sylvia Townsend Warner!) Most of what I know about new stuff therefore is stuff I know about because I’m friends with the writer or publisher. For instance, I’m thrilled that one of my best friends in the world, Eric Schaller, had his debut collection published within weeks of mine. It’s called Meet Me in the Middle of the Air and it’s really great — quite different from my own writing, though the sense of humor is (darkly) similar, as Eric and I tend to laugh about the same things (hoaxes, parasites, death). Eric’s day job is as a professor of biology at Dartmouth College, and he brings a precise and scientific approach to horror fiction that’s pretty much unique.
I also highly recommend a new journal some local friends of mine put out, Outlook Springs, which is like the gonzo love-child of McSweeney’s and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. It’s a pleasure as an object given the careful attention to design, and its stories, poems, and essays are utterly unpredictable.
New Hampshire has a bunch of great short story writers — of course, Joe Hill is one of ours, but also James Patrick Kelly, Tim Horvath, Tom Paine, and Robin McLean. Probably others I don’t know as well. Robin just had her first collection published, Reptile House, and I went to a reading she was giving and we discovered we’re almost neighbors, which is great fun. You never know who’ll pop out of the woods up here!
Speaking of woods … The Witch. I’m very happy for the success of The Witch, because writer/director Robert Eggers is a New Hampshire boy — in fact, almost twenty years ago now, I went with a couple friends to Portsmouth to see an adaptation of Nosferatu put on by a bunch of high school kids who were friends of my friend’s daughter. Lo and behold, that was Robert Eggers and pals. He went on to great things, and now the world knows who he is, which is awesome.
What I liked about The Witch was its attention to material detail. It didn’t feel like people playing dress-up, and it didn’t feel like it completely elided the physical difficulty of its characters’ lives. It’s not Malick’s The New World, which really shows grime and suffering, but still, it doesn’t feel like a total Disneyfication of the era (though the characters aren’t gaunt enough). As a film, it didn’t connect with me much more deeply than that, because I didn’t really find the characters all that compelling and I wanted more weirdness. Basically, it wasn’t surreal enough for my taste — I much prefer Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem, one of my favorite horror movies of recent years (I’ve publicly called Zombie the heir to Artaud, which from me is high praise). But while I didn’t love The Witch, I didn’t dislike it, either. I’m happy I saw it, even if it didn’t affect me the way it did a lot of people. And, as I said, I’m thrilled for Eggers’s success and I think he’s crazily talented.
We could keep talking forever, I bet, so to try to help bring this conversation to a close, let me throw your own question back at you: What out there in the world of texts and images makes its way into your own work these days?
AVY: I totally called your bluff on that! Thank you for reading. And I love your insight about the photographic character of the chapters in Shadows in Summerland. That, in fact, I had intended, in particular with William Mumler’s POV, who tends to perceive moments in time as these little still-lifes or pre-cinematic moving photographs.
Clearly I have to watch The Kid with a Bike now, right?
I adored The Witch for many reasons, not least of all the fact you cite: that it didn’t elide the punishing difficulty of what the characters’ lives would’ve been like historically. Also — and this is something many other reviewers have mentioned, too — it was replete with that very kind of sublime terror we were discussing earlier. It fucking committed to its subject matter — big time! In this case, that terror took its bearings in theology, but I liked that about it, and feel that religious terror is something that horror films could be taking greater advantage of in general (see: The Exorcist, The Omen, Thirst, etc). In many ways, faith is as primordial a designation as fear itself — in some cases, is fear itself.
I’d wanted to mention, in addition, that The Witch reminded me of a less funny but just as emotionally wrenching version of one of my favorite horror films of the past 20 years: Antonia Bird’s Ravenous. Sort of like that, mixed with an early Nathaniel Hawthorne story, and I thought it was actually the best and smartest of this new wave of arty horror that’s been brewing the past five years. Even better than It Follows, which I liked quite a lot. Although your point about Rob Zombie is well taken, too. Lords of Salem was a trip — another disturbing film I watched a matinee of while loudly eating theater nachos! As I’m sure you were probably aware, the screenplay-to-book adaption is co-authored by Brian Evenson.
Which brings me around, organically, to what I’ve been reading, watching, cribbing from. Brian Evenson’s newest collection, A Collapse of Horses, just blew me away. I thought it was actually his most cohesive and elemental all around (caveat: I tend to think that about each of his collections as soon as they arrive). Really, though, it’s an electrifying and humbling experience — like what that gentleman with the cane standing on a rocky outcropping above a fog sea in the Caspar David Friedrich painting is probably feeling — -and there were stories in there (“A Collapse of Horses,” “The Punish,” “Cult,” “Past Reno,” “The Dust,” “Any Corpse”) that I would be hard-pressed to forget any time soon. But with you, I’m probably preaching to the choir on that one.
Some other writers straddling the genre-divide I’ve been stoked on are Victor LaValle, Amber Sparks, Livia Llewellyn, Gabino Iglesias, Alice Kim and, as ever, the masterful Sarah Waters. However, someone that stands out as having rewired my literary consciousness over the past few months is Megan Abbott, whose entire catalogue I am primed to devour. She has a deep, dexterous knowledge of noir, literary fiction, pop culture and academic theory, and manages somehow to pen them all into the same “aesthetic utopia” when she’s writing. I find reading her an incredibly rewarding experience. I liked The Fever, sure, like a lot of people, but Dare Me, her catacomb-dark cheerleader noir (which I’d describe as a mix between Bring It On, Heathers, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Double Indemnity) was superlative, and will serve as a guiding light for the new novel I’m working on, which is a sort of homoerotic Great Gatsby noir murder mystery set amidst the Black Metal scene in present-day New Orleans. Indeed, I expect she will be to this book as Sarah Waters was to Shadows in Summerland.