Women In Horror Month

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I still consider myself to be a horror writer, although these days my stories contain strong elements of other genres and influences; dark fantasy, Surrealism, the Occult. But I began as a horror writer, and a horror fan of course, and I still have a great love for the genre. Which is one of the reasons why I’m writing about Women In Horror Month. For the last eight years, February has been designated WIH Month, to provide a focus on female writers. Despite misgivings of myself and every other female horror writer I know of – one month a year obviously isn’t enough – we all realise that such a focus is necessary.

I had few female role models, artistically speaking, when I was growing up. Punk gave me almost all the ones I did have – Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex), Gee Vaucher, Joy de Vivre, Eve Libertine (Crass), Zillah Minx and Gem Stone (Rubella Ballet), Vi Subversa (Poison Girls), together with Kathy Acker…no horror writers amongst them, but all helped me form my political view of the world. Before then, I read a lot of horror – mostly Gothic short stories – some of which were undoubtedly written by women, but there was no focus on female writers, especially in the 1980s, when horror films in particular seemed to provide an anti-feminist backlash. Without the attitude of punk and punk’s women, as well as Clive Barker’s post-punk style of writing, it would never have occurred to me to think there might be a place for me in horror.

Once I’d began, and had my first professional story published (‘Jump From A Speeding Car’, REM #2, 1992), the first review of the story, by John Duffield for Interzone, gave me a taste of prevailing attitudes. He hated my story – which was disappointing, of course, but his choice – but what really hurt was his sneering, patronising description of me as a person (“some sort of alternative punkette”). I knew a male writer would never have been treated in that way – in fact John Shirley was well known at the time as an old punk and was respected for it. At that point I wondered if my ‘career’ was over before it had even started, but luckily other writers and editors have been far more progressive. Still, I think the problems I had and still face in having stories published is partly down to the lack of clear genre for them to fit into but also – and I think this is paramount – that female writers are still not seriously enough, not just by (many but not all) editors, but by readers; a reflection, of course, of the place of women in society in general. We do not get the gravitas that is automatically accorded to male artists irrespective of their talent (check out New York City’s Guerrilla Girls for far more on this).

What I would like to see each February is women taking over as editors of horror magazines, slipstream magazines, dark fantasy and sf magazines. Obviously women do edit magazines and journals, but I’d like to see them in charge of everything even vaguely related to the horror genre for that month, for a different perspective, to portray the world that exists outside of men and their reflections of themselves (again, this does not describe all male editors by any means).

I don’t read enough fiction. I have neither the time nor especially the money to buy the stories by all the women I need to be reading. But I have a permanent focus on female writers now. I’ve grown up like many women have – surrounded by pressure to belittle myself and my gender. Awareness of such things is the beginning of dismantling them. So seek out women writers; of horror, slipstream, whatever, now and every month of the year. Read interviews, blogs and websites. Most important of all, don’t do the easy thing that we’re all programmed to do, and pass over the female contributors in favour of the male ones. Women are talented, inspiring, visionary. Don’t lose out by ignoring us.

All images and text © Julie Travis

 

Major writing news

Black Static 53 cover

It’s been an incredibly hectic couple of weeks. As you can see, Black Static #53 is out and includes a comprehensive review of Storylandia 15, as well as a load of great looking reading. Peter Tennant comparies the collection to the likes of Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood as well as Clive Barker, and highly recommends it. Illustrious company indeed! Many thanks to Peter for taking the time to do this. I so often operate in a vacuum, it’s extremely interesting and helpful to get an idea of what other people think of what I do. Do I need this kind of validation? As much as anyone else does – I yo-yo between brimming confidence and wild self-doubt, and I was a bit concerned that some of what I now write is just simply inaccessible to the rest of the world.

Following on from the review, I’ve been interviewed by Peter for Case Notes on the TTA Press website. He asked some good questions and I gave some very honest answers. When I first began writing, one of my ultimate goals was to be interviewed. Twenty-three years later, it’s actually happened! (as a writer – I’ve been interviewed as a musician and as a political activist). Of course, what I really meant was that I needed to be heard and taken seriously and the writing provides its own voice. The interview will either get people very interested in what I do or will send them running for the hills.

Andy Martin’s anthology, Fast-Clean-Cheap, is now at the proof-reading stage and is due to be published in September this year by Lulu. It’s likely to be an eclectic collection, with my two pieces probably the only ones inthe horror/dark fantasy vein. Expect the unexpected from Andy!

Finally, I’m very happy to announce that Wapshott Press have asked me to do a second short story collection, for release around the end of 2017. I’ve two or three stories already completed for it, plus a few tricks up my sleeve regarding some older (almost unseen by anyone else) work and two or three new stories to write for it in the next year. The working title for the collection is We Are All Falling Towards The Centre Of The Earth, and I have some thoughts for the book’s cover, too. Once again I have to thank Ginger Mayerson and all at Wapshott Press for such amazing support and faith.

All text ©Julie Travis

Clive Barker and the future of the human race

St Ives Hepworth

“It’s amazing how often I hear people say, ‘You know, we shouldn’t be on this planet.’ I’d never heard that before. That’s very new, the whole idea that the people on the animal planet are talking about the fact that we are the problem not the solution – the wolf not the shepherd – and the decent thing that we should do is just get a gun and put it to our collective heads, I’d never heard of that said before, or mooted before, but it’s an incredibly scary prospect that people, sensible people now think the only solution for what they consider a more valuable piece of creation than us – which is the rest of nature – is best served by us packing our bags and leaving. And that is a frightening thought, just because sensible people are saying that. And I want to address that in the third book of The Art – we need to be pro-life; and pro-life isn’t just about babies, it’s about old people too.”

Clive Barker, Revelations interview, May/June 2014

This excerpt, from the latest interview on Barker’s website, is interesting for several reasons. But first, a pedantic point: the idea of the Earth being salvageable only if the human race is removed from it, is not a new one. I remember discussing this with Andy Martin (then of The Apostles, now of UNIT) at his home in Hackney around 30 years ago. Andy’s question – “If you had a bomb that wiped out humans but didn’t damage anything else, would you use it?” – eventually became the basis for my first novel, The Gathering, which was drafted several years ago but is as yet unfinished. I’m sure it was discussed by ‘sensible’ (assuming Barker means intelligent people who are approaching the issue from an environmental/bigger picture angle, rather than screaming fascists who just want to choose in which order to execute everyone) people before then, too.

Anyway, it’s interesting to me to hear that the thought is being discussed more. I’m not sure what Barker means by being ‘pro-life’, although it appears that he’s restricting the term to human life. For me it’s not just about babies, or old people; as far as I’m concerned it’s about all life. Is it such a radical concept to consider that the incredible array of life on this planet (as well as the planet itself being a living, evolving thing [Gaia, the Great Mother of All, or, for the more scientifically minded, the Gaia Hypothesis]) has as much right to be here as we consider ourselves to have? Even to be pro-human life (above all other forms of life on Earth) surely means that we have to face the fact that humans have massively over populated the planet and the way in which we live is destroying it? We are so close to the point of no return (and further as far as having made untold species extinct) that I find it astounding when other ‘sensible’ people talk about simply adapting in order to feed the massive amounts of people that humans are producing instead of dealing with the issue of over population. We are a part of nature and yet totally apart from it. Could any other species survive in such unsustainable numbers? It really, really isn’t just about us.

I’m also unsure as to what Barker finds scary – the fact that ‘sensible’ people can see how things are going for the planet and therefore it must be bad, or whether he feels that such people have, perhaps, given up on the human race. It could easily be both. This was a small point in an interview, of course, but it would be fascinating to expand on it with him. I’m looking forward to seeing how he addresses it in the third book of The Art.

Barker, presumably, is of the opinion that humans can be better than they are now, can make the Earth a better place. This is an optimistic view – and, of course, it’s always possible – but then I’ve always thought of Barker as an optimistic person. More probable, in my opinion, is David Attenborough belief that we will bring about some kind of environmental catastrophe and then the Earth will continue, with a far, far smaller amount of humans on it than there are now.

But basically, it comes down to this: is the good of the planet and everything on it worth the extinction of the human race? Or is the short-term good of some of the human race worth the ruin of the planet and the extinction of many of the other species which live on it?

I am a ghost in my own life: Balance, Ballard and Michell

Lands End Airport

Prompted by the sad death of ‘slipstream’/horror writer Joel Lane late last year, I’ve been determined to read more fiction. I was always aware of how well regarded Lane was, both as a writer of horror in realistic/urban/working-class settings and as a person but am not familiar with his work. I should be, as well as others who are in my peer group, but who all have a higher profile than myself. For the last decade or so, I’ve been very involved in non-fiction writings: local and national archaeology and sacred sites, reference books on demonology and suchlike… Should I be reading more fiction, if nothing else, to keep in touch, both with the writers and with the art form? Following my own path is fine, I think, but I don’t want to go so far down it that my writing becomes inaccessible and ceases to do what I want it to do. So, a couple of forays into local Oxfam bookshops have been useful: I hadn’t read High-Rise by J G Ballard for decades, so was glad of a chance to re-familiarise myself with it. I like Ballard. His characters all seem to have their own personal madness going on, often while they try to survive in the Hell of suburbia. [NB: the ICA in London once organised an event with Ballard being interviewed by the then fresh faced Clive Barker. It must have been in the mid 1980s. Unfortunately, the event was cancelled, with no explanation or rescheduling taking place. A bitter disappointment! It was around the same time that Kathy Acker interviewed William Gibson at the same venue, a fantastic and inspirational event.]  I’m several chapters in to High-Rise and I’ve had to stop reading it: perhaps it’s my frame of mind, but the story is just making me laugh. It feels odd to do so, a little disrespectful, but I was a very different person when I read the book first time round. Another time, perhaps. To complete the failure, I went into Oxfam a few days ago and found a copy of Michellany: A John Michell Reader. I don’t know nearly enough about Michell (to my shame: he was a real authority on sacred sites and Earth energies) and the book – hardcover, signed and numbered by the authors – has a number of previously unpublished essays in it, together with writings on Michell by a number of people. No fiction here! I need to be careful while I browse it: financial pressures mean I need to sell it on as soon as possible, which is a shame, as it’s a beautiful looking book, but such is life. I hope to learn something before I let it go.

After years of missing local record fairs, I went to one last Saturday. I had a feeling there was something there for me, so I went in as soon as it opened, looked around the roomful of cds and records and let my instinct take me to one of the boxes of albums. There, about halfway through, was a copy of the first pressing of Current 93/Sickness of Snakes’ mini-album, Murder Culture (1985). On the back was a dedication, signature and date (1986) by John (as he was known then) Balance. It was the real deal, so I got it – £28 well spent, I think. This one I’m not selling on, unless times get absolutely desperate. I have an item that belonged to Balance, and perhaps it’s his writing on the Zos Kia test pressing I have, but the album’s another connection which I could not walk away from.

Music has always been more of an inspiration/springboard for my writing than other people’s fiction (which may be another reason that I don’t feel the need to read that much), and that continues, with the acquisition, finally, of the first Electric Sewer Age album, Peter Christopherson’s final musical work. It has not been a disappointment, indeed, it has the feel, perhaps the magick, of Coil, something I thought would not be possible without Balance’s (physical) presence.

And as for writing, the two stories I had been working on have had to be put on hold again. For good reason: in the space of a day or so, I’ve sketched out a whole new short story. It’s one of those that has just dropped on to my notebook and I had to get the general idea down as quickly as it appeared. A bit of research and it’ll be all systems go. I would say it’s a subtle, psychological horror story, with a (probably male) Spanish architect as its centre.

Defiling ‘The Art’: writing for money

Roughtor, Cornwall

Roughtor, Cornwall

Horror writer and now columnist for Black Static magazine Lynda E Rucker recently wrote about hearing Clive Barker make a speech back in the 1990s about The Art of writing and how sacred it was, presumably arguing against writing any old rubbish in order to make money. Rucker dismissed Barker with a very realistic wave of the hand – nearly all writers have jobs of one sort of another in order to survive, and if that included writing for money rather than Art then it was just practical.

I have to agree with both of them. The odd payment for a piece of fiction is very much appreciated but doesn’t usually cover more than the cost of printer ink. I’ve had various jobs over the years, all in the public sector for political reasons, but for the last decade or so I’ve been declared unfit to work due to having had several nervous breakdowns. I still managed to keep my head above water financially, writing bits and pieces for the gay press when I was living in London and have got used to poverty, going without shiny things (apart from the odd cd and book) as a matter of course and actually not wanting or needing much, but the vicious welfare cuts by the Tory government now means I’m in an untenable financial position. Not yet Foodbank poor, but certainly picking-pennies-off-the-pavement poor.

However, Barker is right in that I have been striving to write fiction that grabs you and propels you Elsewhere, that makes you think about the darkness of Life, that celebrates the Other, the misfit, the weirdo (and sometimes this simply means having a story centred around female characters). Whether or not I achieve that is arguable, but that’s what I aim for. Anything less is a waste of trees. The articles I wrote for the gay press were all things I was passionate about: political activism, debt, mental illness, self harm, interviews with bands, performance poets and legal activists. But now things are so bad I’m remembering what my dear, departed mother kept telling me to do: write crap. That I could turn my hand to light fiction that might be meaningless to me but could make me enough money to allow a bit of financial breathing space. It was something I always refused to do – writing is an Art, and trees are not to be wasted – but my principles won’t pay the rent. So I’ve begun some light fiction for a magazine that, shall we say, appeals to Middle Englanders (if that term means anything at all). I’ve read some of the fiction in the magazine and was bored almost to tears. Light is an understatement. Still, it gave me the feel of what was needed, so I’ve sketched out a story and am working on a first draft.

The submission guidelines state: nothing upsetting or frightening, nothing supernatural. It took a couple of weeks to get into that kind of headspace (bearing in mind I’m also still working on a dark fantasy story), but I’m there and will give it my best shot, submit it and see what the reaction is. The discipline needed to write in a completely different genre is good for me and I’ve got years of writing experience – I should be able to give it a good go. I’ve changed genres before, to a limited level, writing slash fiction (about TJ Hooker!) on the Barbelith forum and my articles for The Pink Paper and Diva magazine were based on their house styles. Should I get something published in this magazine (and I know it will be far from easy to do so), I will bless the money that comes with it, but I don’t know if I will ever forgive myself. And the trees certainly won’t.

A festival of optimism in the Age of Worthlessness

My self-enforced low profile has come to an abrupt end, after only around a month. Perhaps Beltane has given me some energy. After some more tweaking I realised From The Bones was now actually finished and so it’s been sent to Grey Matter Press to be considered for their forthcoming anthology of dark speculative fiction Ominous Realities. They seem a very organised bunch of people and as they cite Clive Barker as a big influence then it’s definitely worth seeing if a story of mine would fit. After having information forwarded from Ginger Mayerson, the editor of Storylandia journal, about authors giving talks to book clubs, she asked to see any stories I had for possible inclusion to the mixed-genre March 2014 issue (Storylandia is not usually in the horror/dark fantasy camp). I’ve sent her Theophany (the Darkworlds II opus) and The Ferocious Night. And a new story is on the horizon. I have a title, Widdershins, and have begun making a few notes. My forthcoming trip to Jhonn Balance’s memorial in Cumbria, Hadrian’s Wall and Lindisfarne is bound to provide some different perspectives and inspiration so who knows where the story will end up?

As you can see, a trailer for Urban Occult has been put together by Mark West, one of the anthology’s contributors. It’s a snazzy, professional looking job. Nice one, Mark! I’ve yet to read a review of the book that even mentions my story, but someone once said to me, “Your work will only be appreciated after you’re dead!” so perhaps I should expect nothing else.

Beltane was marked in Penzance/Newlyn by the May Horns procession, which I’ve been lucky enough to see since its resurrection a few years back. The sight of a huge Crowman, several Green Men and Women, and dancing folk dressed in green and white, blowing horns and banging drums, making their way along the seafront, is reassuringly oddball.

Clive Barker pt. 2: power to the imagination

Lydford Castle, Devon

First of all I should say that I’m glad to be writing about a novel of Barker’s, rather than a posthumous tribute. He nearly left us in January after contracting toxic shock after a visit to the dentist. He was in a coma and wasn’t expected to recover, but had ‘too much to do’ to go just yet. Thankfully. Too many inspiring souls have gone in recent years.

A lifetime or so ago, I went to an exhibition relating to the soon to be released film Hellraiser. In a smallish upstairs room near Tottenham Court Road station (in the same building where, many years later, I was to finally meet Barker) were photos and props from the film. I remember the excitement, the anticipation, of what Barker’s first ‘proper’ film would be like. It was all quite low key and underground; this all happened before the Hollywood Barker industry began. He was even still living in London. One of the props – a full size model of Chatterer Cenobite – was especially fascinating. Wires pulled the lips back to reveal the Cenobite’s teeth and gums. The detail was incredible. I got close up, face to face, to study it properly and the ‘model’, who was, of course, actually an actor in full make up, moved a bit. It scared the wits out of me but come the film’s release you couldn’t keep me away.

I finished Mr B. Gone a while back, and since the novel was several years old when I got hold of it, I doubt there’s many out there with any interest in horror/dark fantasy/Clive Barker who haven’t read it and in the light of what happened to Barker in January it seems almost unimportant to write what I thought of it so I’ll keep it brief. I wonder if anyone else thought the opening section was reminiscent of Nick Cave’s And The Ass Saw The Angel? I was immediately reminded of it – first person narrative by a bizarre, misshapen creature who is inevitably going to meet a bad end. The biggest criticism of the book by others – the continual insistence by the protagonist that the book be burned – is a reasonable one. By the middle of the novel it became seriously frustrating to still be reading it. There is a whimsical air to the book as well in places and there were a few times I nearly stopped reading because of it, but then Barker would deliver some amazing prose, a piece of brilliance that made the book worth buying. Barker can still write horror, of that there’s no doubt, it’s just that in this novel he’s chosen to play with his protagonist, and therefore with the reader, instead of taking things much further. The fact that for at least half the book there appears to be no real story, just a demon running away from a series of enemies, is my biggest criticism. Barker has the talent and the wit to write the most amazing horror stories if he chooses to. Perhaps he’s grown away from the genre (and his recent illness might have a huge effect on his writing). Time will tell.

Far more interesting, and pertinent, than Mister B. Gone is an interview conducted in the middle of March, which appears on Barker’s website. The first part is entirely about his horrific near-death experience, which began on 10 January and from which he is still struggling to recover. I’ve only just read it myself and it shocked me to think how close we all were to losing him. It hasn’t changed my views about Death, but how one makes one’s way there is certainly something to feel cautious about. The second part of the interview changes tack and discusses the next Abarat and Clive’s absolute love of dogs throughout his life. Inevitably, perhaps, the loss of such beloved companions comes up, something I and many of us will certainly be able to relate to. So even if you have no huge interest in Barker’s books, I’d recommend reading the interview. All power to you, Clive, get well soon. And please dazzle us again with the kind of horror only you can write.