Thursday, November 13, 2003

While I await more Top Thirteen Horror lists to come in, I thought that it would be an opportune time to put up some of my old writing. No, I'm not talking about posting my high school journal entries or any thing like that. Don't worry. I'm talking about some of my earlier reviews and articles that I did for various zines and web sites -- stuff that I still like and think perhaps some of you may enjoy reading as well.

The first piece is an interview (my first) that I conducted via email with science-fiction/horror writer, John Shirley. It was done for the Student Advantage web site (now deceased) in October 2000.

Shaping the Rage with John Shirley
Interview by Derek Hill

John Shirley is rock and roll. His dark chords resonate in the memory like few others. Whether he is writing his particular brand of cyber-punk, horror, or grim urban fiction, it all comes out black. But that’s not to say Shirley’s intentions are merely to thrash about and shock. That would be too simple, too . . . safe. There’s a definite method to his madness, even though it may not initially be clear what it is.

For most of his early career Shirley was burning the candle at both ends. He should be dead. But he isn’t. He’s alive and well and writing some of the best stuff of his wild career, one which includes screenwriting credits for the film The Crow, and the novels City Come A-Walkin’, Wetbones, and his newest, Demons.

His official website is

You began publishing fiction professionally at a young age. Exactly how old were you?

Professionally, I was about nineteen. Less professionally, I'd already been publishing in underground publications of various kinds for several years. I'd already written a novel and a half—Dracula in Love and Transmaniacon, both of which were eventually sold. Dracula in Love was a rather perverse book but had its own level of intense hormone-fueled creativity; Zebra books brings it back into print now and then. A lot of my earlier writing was colored by the political background of the early seventies; the social upheaval of a kind of orgy of taboo-breaking that was going on.

How long after attending Clarion did you begin to write professionally? How did your experiences there influence your writing?

To tell you the truth, Clarion literally (and literarily) saved me from a life of crime. I was a disaffected, alienated, angry young man and going in all the wrong directions in several respects. Clarion gave me an alternative. I sold a story professionally while at Clarion to the Clarion anthology, published by NAL. One of my Clarion teachers--it's a six week thing, a different pro every week, and I've since been a teacher myself--was Terry Carr, who later went on to publish Bill Gibson’s Neuromancer (I'm the one who got Terry interested in Gibson!), and he subsequently published some of my stories in his anthology Universe. Another Clarion teacher, Robert Silverberg, bought two stories from me for other anthologies. This encouraged me to work harder on publishing my novel. Terry also bought one of my first novels, Changeworld, which I had only one manuscript copy of (It was written on an electric typewriter) and which was lost in the mail when I sent it to him, never to be seen again! It's probably just as well. . . So you see being at Clarion was a boon to me professionally. People liked my writing, there, and encouraged me, and stayed in touch afterwards. Although it's not entirely true to say "it's who you know" that helps you, it's partly true. You have to have some ability too. Of course, you can not know any pro editors and still get published out of left field, happens all the time. But it did help to meet them. Though Ursula LeGuin, who was there, didn’t help me get published directly, she encouraged me a great deal and the psychological help in that was invaluable. What was most helpful at Clarion was the harsh, merciless feedback from the other writers there, and the pro writer (or editor) teachers like Harlan Ellison and Avram Davidson and Silverberg and LeGuin and Frank Herbert. They force you to be somewhat objective. Of course one gets privately angry and sullen when criticized--especially if one is young-. When people say "read this and criticize it honestly! Tell me what you really think!" they are LYING nearly every time. They actually only want to hear good things, whatever they may suppose or claim. But at a setting like Clarion you're stuck there, day after day--and you have to learn to live with criticism. Pretty soon you internalize that editorial voice--and you do need that inner editor.

Most musicians have a "day job". Your day job was writing fiction -- how did you balance your creative energies between the two? Was one of them ever more important to you than the other, and at what point (and why) did you decide to concentrate most of your energy on writing?

I had my shot at signing with a major label and major producer, John Hammond at Columbia. He'd just signed Stevie Ray Vaughn and he said he wanted to work with me--I was a singer--if only I'd get rid of the band I was working with. I didn't want to do that and I was very punk-attitudinized at the time, and I rubbed him wrong and then I blew it off the time I realized he was the guy who discovered Dylan and Springsteen, it was too late, he'd had a stroke. You don't get two shots like that in life. I did go on to make a record with a European label, but it did only marginally. And finally I did have to make a choice. I still write lyrics (for the Blue Oyster Cult--their new album Heaven Forbid, is 80% my lyrics), and do a little recording but it's a hobby. You know, at the time I was able to do both partly because of the very understanding young ladies in my life. You may have heard the joke: What do you call a rock musician without a girlfriend? Homeless. Also I married a couple of those generous ladies (not both at once!), and had some kids, and wanted to be responsible to the kids--so I had to do what generated the most money for me, in my life, and that was writing. Also, many women don't like their boyfriends/husbands to be rock singers unless the guy is making a lot of money from it, because there are too many girls in the audience.

You've done your fair share of hard living. You wrote throughout it and came out on the other side stronger than ever. To what do you attribute your survival -- both creative and personal?

Recovery--spirituality--and, frankly, prayer. Staying clean and sober. I have had a couple of brief relapses--a few hours each--but for the most part I've stayed clean for ten years. And before that I was trying to and sometimes getting long periods of staying clean from drugs. I never wrote on drugs though sometimes I wrote about drug related experiences between times. Some drugs are worse than others are, of course--but I can't touch any of them if I want to stay clean because, for an addict, one intoxicant leads to another. Plus I 'got by with a little help from my friends'--my wife Micky, other people who cared about me helped. Learning to be honest helps--people who have a secret life of any kind, who live compartmentally, hiding things from those close to them, are in danger of fragmenting more than their exterior lives, they also fragment their inner lives. If your inner self--your soul, if you want to call it that, or your mind, if you prefer--is fragmented, you can't make conscious choices and you find yourself falling into traps. A little self knowledge helps too--know yourself, and you will see some of the traps that you are setting for yourself. And you can avoid them and learn to stop setting them.

Your fiction has always been pessimistic, and you have maintained that in recent collections Black Butterflies and Really, Really, Really, Really, Weird Stories. How do you reconcile the present stability of your life with this dark worldview?

I don't know if it's always so pessimistic. If you read my trilogy of novels starting with Eclipse (Babbage Press), and my novel Silicon Embrace, or my recent book Demons, you find that it's horrific, a dark passage, but at the end of the passage something is achieved, someone has grown, someone has survived, usually the dark side has lost, despite a terrible cost. Short stories are often tooled for maximum impact and to make a specific statement--so they tend to be darker, to end darker. Often the stories are a moral allegory, or are trying to throw light on some dark corner of life now; they're trying to describe the dilemmas that the forgotten people fall into. People who've fallen through the chinks--or leapt headfirst through them. I identify with these people even if I'm not one anymore. So the stories--even when dark--are about the human condition, the terrible traps people can be in and they're sympathetic in that sense. Stability in life is always tentative. Life is hard no matter what--I have my share of problems. Stephen King is a wealthy man with a loving family and fame--but he took a walk and some guy ran him down with a van. That's life. It's the artist's job to dramatize that direness, to shine light on it so it can be seen and understood from within the mechanism of the event.

In your fiction and film work, have you ever experienced censorship? As someone who works in Hollywood, what is your take on Democratic VP candidate Joseph Lieberman's call for Hollywood to begin to "self-censor" their films? Do you think this is ever justified?

I haven't had much problem with it. I'm more concerned about the kind of censorship that goes on in the news media (for my article on this see Political and Corporate Censorship in the Land of the Free, by clicking on nonfiction at the authorized John Shirley website). News stories are 'spiked' --that is, stopped--by special interests. An example was dramatized in the recent film The Insider. . . I do think that studios should not market R rated movies to children. This doesn't mean the kids can't see the film if the parents take them or allow it at home--it only means that the advertising is not aimed at them or shoved under their noses. I think that movies like Natural Born Killers are probably irresponsible because the "heroes" are murderers who murder for fun--the film seems to implicitly celebrate murder, rather than exposing it or warning about it or simply using it as a plot point. I think that it would've been more responsible if the studio had said, No, this film is socially irresponsible so we choose not to release it. But I don't think that sort of thing should be imposed by Congress or the laws. We have some limitations now and they are enough. And I think the evidence is that violent films don't imprint people with violent behavior. Violent films may trigger violent behavior on the part of someone who's already deeply pathological--like those kids at Columbine--but something would’ve triggered it anyway. There is a study that suggests that violent videogames and PC games might make aggressive behavior more likely though. But movies are different. I do think that art should usually rule over one's moral concerns--the movie Clockwork Orange is a very meaningful artistic film and it could conceivably be seen as encouraging youth violence (and in fact there was supposedly copycat violence brought on by it) but I think it's such a masterpiece it deserves to be out there. I think Pulp Fiction was real art, a fine film, and yet I suppose it could be considered dangerous to young minds--or some might think so. But I'm glad it was made.

There is a real sense of dissatisfaction with capitalism in the world right now (i.e. the W.T.O. protests around the country and the western world). But prominent bands such as Rage Against the Machine and films such as Fight Club manage to get bankrolled by global corporations (Sony and Fox respectively), while arguably maintaining very anti-capitalist, anti-materialist messages. Do you think that these forms of pop culture are truly subversive, or are they merely just escapist fantasies for the already converted?

It's interesting — Fight Club was a very subversive film. So was the movie They Live, from John Carpenter, a while back. Subversive art is often bankrolled by people who are being ridiculed by those very films. Either they don't get it, they miss the underlying message, as is the case with Fight Club probably, or, in some cases, they think it's healthy to criticize even their own social set, the status quo they belong to. Perhaps some regard it as a sort of social lightning rod. But I think subversive films like Fight Club and American Beauty do affect people. Often not consciously, but on some level they get the message. The movie The Matrix, while not as artistically valid as the Fight Club or American Beauty makes much the same statement--we're caught up in a vast corporate system (seen in purely symbolic form in The Matrix) which has made its consumerist values--its extreme valuation of entertainment for the sake of it, of living in a media dream--the center of our lives. We've moved our center away from our inner lives and our nearby-community and made it something meaningless; we've projected ourselves on a screen. So we feel lost, disoriented, meaningless. People know this, even if they can't articulate it. Movies like Fight Club state it for them. . . I don't know if people are reacting against capitalism per se--but against "captilism uber alles". That is, stupefying, raging unmodified capitalism; capitalism out of control, where everything is done for the sake of business and human concerns are only passingly taken account of. The WTO issue is ultimately about human rights--giving people a real living wage, health care, equal opportunity, a clean environment, does not have to be destructive to capitalism. It only modifies its unhealthiest form and makes it healthy again.

You originally wrote the "Song of Youth" trilogy back in the 80s, before the Soviet Union had collapsed entirely. With the recent re-publication of the series (newly updated and revised), how do you view the lingering shadow of European fascism in Austria, the Baltics, and the former Yugoslavia?

The re-published Eclipse books are revised and updated--the "New Soviets" of the novels are something explained in the book, so it's no longer outdated. As far as I can see all too much of what was predicted in the Eclipse books is coming true. Racism is on the rise, not on the decline. When people fail to adapt to the stress of wave after wave of new immigrants, the clash of cultures, the increased competition, they tend to look for someone to scapegoat and this makes for an opportunity for demagogues, wannabe dictators. Ethnic rivalries in Eastern Europe are worse than ever. Fascism is back in Austria--the Fascist who recently stepped down only stepped behind the throne and still controls things from there. Eclipse describes the 'social recipe' that could lead to organized international racism returning. It also warns about media manipulation and mind control--like the CIA's real life program to control the media, "Project Truth"--and how they could be used to advance a fascist agenda. Some vast social catastrophe--not 'the end of the world' but a big crack in the world--will make desperate people follow political desperados into the abyss. What sort of catastrophe? Currently the most likely, aside from ecologically induced famine, would be a terrorist-induced plague. Smallpox and anthrax, dumped on millions in America by terrorists who've purchased the viruses from the vast stockpile the Russians built up--and which they no longer have any real control over. In the destabilizing wake of such an attack we could be vulnerable to fascist takeover.

Who are some writers you admire, past and present?

Elmore Leonard, Cormac McCarthy, Edgar Allen Poe, JG Ballard, F Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Tim Powers (check out his new novel Declare), CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, Herman Hesse, Jacob Needleman, Dorothy Parker, Patrick O'Brien, Richard Stark, Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith, Bruce Sterling, Dan Simmons, Jack Vance, Raymond Carver, Rudy Rucker, Marc Laidlaw--I guess that's enough.

You began your career as a writer of sf and moved into horror (and horrific mainstream pieces). To what do you attribute the change in focus?

I don't think I fit the science fiction readership very well. Last time I was at a Worldcon I felt very out of place. I'm just not a very good fit in any genre though there's no doubt I've written a lot of genre fiction. Genre but not generic. I tend to break out of categories. Also I wanted to make statements about the 'real' world too-- about the underworld, so called, the underside of society. About the lost people I mentioned before. SF was not the place to do it--most SF editors don't want to hear about it. And Eclipse is a progressive political statement--the people protesting the WTO would be more likely to dig it than the people reading Jerry Pournelle or Heinlein or even Neal Stephenson. To me those books are more about social and moral issues than politics. But some right-wing or Libertarian SF-types may find them too "political"--because it isn't their politics. Not that I’m politically correct, particularly. I like Dirty Harry movies and enjoyed the movie Starship Troopers--and Troma films.

I understand that Troma is planning on adapting some of your work (or will it be original projects?). Could you elaborate on this?

No deal is yet signed. They did approach me about adapting a couple of my more Troma-esque short stories. I do think Troma films are funny, and that they have their own level of artistry and satirical value. So I'll only be a little embarrassed by the movie. I like Lloyd Kaufman from Troma a lot. He's a great guy, perversely talented. One of the stories would be “Just Like Suzie” from my collection Really, Really, Really, Really, Weird Stories. And it is not politically correct either. Fortunately, not all my stories are Troma-adaptable. Some are not so over the top! Anyway, I won't be writing the script. God only knows what the film would be like...

Is the future bright? Or are we going to crawl around in the dark for awhile?

It'll be a patchwork. I do think we have some disasters in our global future. I think there's a good globalism and a bad globalism. The bad globalism means we let the corporations rule the world; the good one will be global enforcement of Human Rights, and worldwide ecological standards. Before we get there we'll have to learn lessons from ecological catastrophe, massive terrorist bio-attack, and war induced by greed...

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